Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Most Selective MBA Programs

Despite Stanford’s appeal – which includes a Mediterranean climate and a 10-minute drive to Silicon Valley – it isn’t the only MBA program that attracts top talent. MIT Sloan has traditionally ranked among the top programs in terms of applications-to-seats. Over the past three years, that ratio has jumped from 10.6 to 13.6. The quality of candidates has risen too, with Sloan enjoying a 15 point rise in average GMATs over the past five years (with an increase in women and international students as well).

U.C.-Berkeley Haas ranks as the 3rd-most selective MBA program at 13.1 applications for a seat in the Class of 2020. The 14th-largest full-time MBA program, Haas has experienced a point drop in applications-to-seats over the past three years. This reflects a larger trend, as Haas has enjoyed a healthy 1.1% increase in applications during the same period. In other words, more applicants became aware of the Haas brand. This increased popularity resulted in a slight decrease in selectivity. Then again, an increase in applications doesn’t always equate to a surge in truly committed candidates. In the past two years, for example, Haas’ yield has fallen from 53.1% to 49.4%. Translation: the drop was driven by tourists not devotees. 
Yale SOM (10.9) and Harvard Business School (10.6) round out the five most exclusive programs, trailed closely by New York University Stern at 10.2 – a 0.7 of a point slide in the past three years. Overall, the top five programs share a similarity: they are all based on the coasts near tech epicenters. Excluding Northwestern Kellogg and Rochester Simon, the ten most selective MBA programs fit this description. Even there, Rochester Simon defies an easy explanation. Located in northwestern New York – a six-hour drive to the Long Island Sound – the Simon School averaged 9.9 applications for every one of its 84 seats. That number will only increase now that it has become STEM certified, potentially adding 36 months to an OPT work visa for international applicants.

Rochester Simon’s selectivity punches well above its ranking. The same can be said for Arizona State’s W. P. Carey Business School. However, the school’s 8.5-to-1 applicant-to-student ratio is part and parcel of its admissions policy, which had given full-ride scholarship to every accepted applicant three years (a policy that has since shifted to providing financial aid to students). Washington University’s Olin School, a traditional Top 20 outlier, also ranked as the 13th-most selective MBA program. That said, the school’s 11.2-to-1 ratio in 2015 placed it in the Top 3 – ahead of MIT Sloan and Harvard Business School, no less. That ratio has since dwindled to 8.3-to-1, thanks to a 29% decline in applications.
UC Irvine Merage School of Business

Second-tier programs like Penn State (8.1), Florida Hough (8.0), Maryland Smith (7.9), and U.C. Irvine Merage (7.8) also perform well with selectivity in contrast to their ranking. That said, each of these programs houses less than 100 students, meaning a rise in applications produces a bigger swing in the applicant-to-student ratio than larger programs. That’s one reason why, for example, Penn State tops Wharton and Rutgers edges out Chicago Booth in this measure. Aside from Harvard, scale simply undermines prestige.

Every measure has its downsides. For example, applications-to-seats isn’t necessarily a barometer of school health. Exhibit A: Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business. It attracts 2.4 applications for every student it enrolls – the worst conversion among the Top 50 MBA programs. That said, the school converted 131 of the 166 accepted applicants into actual students, ranking below just Harvard and Stanford in terms of yield. In other words, Marriott sealed the deal with 75% of its targeted candidates – a healthy sign indeed.

Shifting class sizes also impacts selectivity…but not as much as one might expect. When luxury companies boost inventory, they risk watering down their distinction. That isn’t necessarily the case in graduate business education. At Berkeley Haas, for example, the school has added 45 seats since 2015 thanks to increasing physical capacity. Without this bump, Haas’ applicants-to-seats ratio would stand at 15.5 instead of 13.1. That’s hardly a downfall considering the extra $2.5 million dollars in annual tuition revenue the school generated without any discernible decline in student quality.

Overall, 25 of the top 50 American full-time MBA programs lost ground over the past three years when it comes to exclusivity. This number, however, has been influenced by 32 of these schools attracting fewer applications during this period. What’s more, 10 programs have increased class sizes by 10 or more students, with another 11 schools trimming classes by the same amount.

Like any data point, selectivity is a flawed metric that doesn’t always follow expectations. What’s more, global prestige doesn’t necessarily equate to a local program’s deep roots with local industries and employers – where the right alum or opportunity can fast-track any MBA’s career. Still, prestige matters. Many people associate a personal brand with an MBA. Earning that degree from a household name confers credibility and latitude. The sum of thousands of acceptances and rejections can make a program selective or exclusive. Over time, it is the learning, experiences, and network that ultimately determines its prestige.

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