Some business schools in Maryland are experiencing their own versions of a nationwide trend — that of declining admissions to full-time MBA programs — and some people interpret the drop-off as yet another sign that the temperamental economy is wreaking havoc on higher education.
But not so fast, said several university officials, who acknowledged that they received fewer applications than in recent years in keeping with new data from the Graduate Management Admission Council. They questioned if the economy is the culprit and even whether the trend is as troubling as it may seem.
“Virtually everyone” has seen a decline in applications over the past two years, said Ken White, associate dean of MBA and MS programs at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“But I don’t think anybody is alarmed by that,” he continued. “If you look over the past 20 years, you see ebbs and flows. It goes up, down, then it levels off. What schools are seeing now, including [Smith], is a small decline in applications, but enrollment is holding steady. If the actual class size started to shrink, that would be frightening.”
Smith’s enrollment numbers have, in fact, slightly decreased along with the decline in applications. Last year, the school received 1,330 applications and enrolled 423 students. This year, 1,125 applications yielded 355 enrollees.
Other schools posted similar figures.
Applications to the UB/Towson MBA — a joint program between the Towson University College of Business and Economics and the University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business — dropped only slightly, but the number of new students in the program fell 14 percent, said program director Ron Desi.
This year, 104 students entered the program — a decrease of 14 percent from the 121 new students last year, he said. The number of applications to MS programs at UB has remained constant compared to last fall, he added.
The trend indicates sustained interest among potential students, Desi said, but they’re more hesitant to take the plunge than they were a few years ago.
Salisbury University’s Perdue School of Business also saw a decline in MBA applications. The school received 86 last year and 57 this year, according to spokesman Jason Rhodes.
The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School saw a reduction in MBA applications but didn’t follow the same pattern of other schools.
The school received 11 percent fewer full-time MBA applications this month than last fall but registered 22 percent more students, according to data provided by school officials. The MS programs at Carey also received more applications this fall than last year, the data show.
Several programs there saw an increase in applications and enrollments, primarily because of new degree programs added to the school, said spokesman Patrick Ercolano.
The full-time Master’s of Science in finance, for example, added 75 new students this year.
Ercolano also speculated that perhaps students applying to Hopkins are “more serious” about accepting an offer, whereas in the past, they might have applied out of curiosity.
Students now have more options for degree programs, as business schools add specialized, one-year master’s degrees to their offerings. The numbers of applicants for and registered students in those programs have been “exploding,” said White, of the Smith school.
Those are the figures that tell the most complete story of an institution’s success, he added.
The Smith school has seen the most growth in its four one-year master’s programs — accounting, finance, supply chain and information systems — with a total of 784 students enrolled.
These programs target undergraduates who want to continue their education right after receiving their bachelor’s degree rather than wait until they’ve amassed five years of professional experience.
Information systems and supply chain management, which were added last year, saw the highest growth, both in the number of applicants and the number of students enrolled.
Although schools have been increasing the visibility of new one-year degree programs, White said he doesn’t think the focus will totally shift away from traditional MBAs.
“The MBA will always be considered our bread and butter and also the program that determines our reputation,” White said. “So that MBA is very, very important to the top business schools and the Smith school included. So — at least not in the near future — you won’t see schools back off the MBA in any way, shape or form.”
Still, the success of one kind of program does not preclude the success of another. White cautioned against assuming that an increase in the number of applications to one-year degree programs results in fewer MBA applications. One should not affect the other at all, he said.
“They are two totally different degrees and two totally different students,” he said.
The trends at Hopkins also show that different kinds of programs follow different patterns. Carey’s part-time Executive MBA program is geared toward people with at least seven years of professional experience who have been recommended by their companies.
Last year, 38 applications were received, and 15 students registered. This year, 36 applications were received, and 20 students registered.
To explain the decline in applications, some cite the job market and the sluggish — if not stagnant — economic recovery. The economic climate often impacts higher education enrollment, officials said, but in different ways.
“Some people think that when there’s a high number of applicants to MBA programs, that’s a signal that the economy is weak,” White said. “And some say that when the economy is looking up, not as many people will go to grad school.”
A few years ago when many programs saw an increased number of graduate students, it was chalked up to an uncertain job market driving young professionals back into the classroom rather than straight to the workforce.
At this point, it’s possible that would-be students are anxious about the cost of higher education and reluctant to take out a loan, especially with the spotlight on exploding student loan debt, which surpassed the $1 trillion mark last year.
The decline in MBA applications may be tied to the economy, White said, but it’s likely just one of the many cyclical fluctuations that characterize the admissions process.
“It’s always been a rollercoaster, so to speak, in the number of applicants and it’s always interesting to watch everyone in our industry try to determine why that is. But we’re never able to exactly put our finger on it.”
Some schools are offering classes tailored to the very economic challenges that have caused them distress, or that capitalize on the changing business environment.
“We think the economic downturn has definitely affected the decline in the short-term,” Desi said. “…One of the things we’re doing is using the opportunity to enhance the existing programs that we have to prepare students for the new realities that we’ve been experiencing the past few years.”
Officials from Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business were not available for comment Monday and enrollment and applicant data were not available.