The Covid-19 lockdown gave Mary Elizabeth Shutley the time and space to evaluate her career ambitions. She concluded that she should move from consulting to strategy. “I realised I wanted to work for one company, as opposed to switching projects across multiple clients,” she says.

Shutley, who is from the US, decided that an MBA was the best way to reboot her career. In August 2021, after five years at Accenture Federal Services, a consultancy — and despite being promoted to a management position — she enrolled at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington DC. “If the roles you want in the future require an MBA, it is definitely worth the sacrifice [of income],” she says.

The pandemic triggered a rush for MBAs. Before Covid, applications for business masters courses overall hit a three-year low in 2019, falling 3.1 per cent, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). The pandemic reversed the trend, causing applications to spike by 2.4 per cent in 2020. That upswing continued last year, albeit at a slower rate, when applications rose 0.4 per cent.

During economic downturns, there tends to be a countercyclical uplift in applications. The turmoil in the job market lowers the opportunity cost of not working, as companies freeze hiring and promotions. In periods of economic growth, people are less willing to put their careers on hold to return to full-time study.

But, now, some admissions consultants and MBA administrators say a booming job market amid last year’s recovery and the emergence of new Covid variants created the conditions for a slowdown in applications.

At some leading institutions, including Harvard Business School, Covid outbreaks in the student population forced a temporary return to remote teaching for a week in September. While schools have become better at delivering classes remotely, students still value human interaction.

In October, an admissions consultancy based in California, called Accepted, surveyed 250 visitors to its website. A majority still planned to apply for MBAs, though 14 per cent had shelved their applications in 2021 because of the stronger economy and the Delta coronavirus variant. The survey predated the emergence of Omicron.

Caroline Diarte Edwards, San Francisco-based co-founder of another consultancy, Fortuna Admissions, says last year’s economic rebound has thrown into sharp relief the sacrifices that a full-time MBA demands. These include forgoing salary and promotions, and often considerable debt to fund studies. “From what I am seeing with clients, the dramatic increase in application volume we saw in response to Covid has calmed down somewhat,” says Diarte Edwards, previously admissions director at Insead in France. “We are back to a more normal volume of applications.”

At McDonough School of Business, growth in applications has slowed so far this academic year, reflecting the countercyclical demand for MBA courses. It is still early in the September-April cycle of applications for programmes starting this autumn, but most come in the first couple of rounds of admissions.

Mary Elizabeth Shutley © Noah Willman

A slowdown will increase a student’s chances of admission, though only marginally. “An incremental decrease in demand since 2020 isn’t a silver bullet for MBA admission,” says Stacy Blackman, an admissions consultant based in California. “Like with any economic cycle, the top MBA brands will see less fluctuation in application volumes than lower-ranked programmes.”

Few in the industry expect applications to fall dramatically. Many students will have hit a career plateau, and need to upgrade their credentials to progress. Another phenomenon that bears this out is the “Great Resignation”, where millions, like Shutley, have quit their jobs for better paid or more rewarding work.

“When people embark on an MBA, it is usually out of positive frustration in their career,” says Mark Thomas, associate dean and director of international graduate programmes at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France. The degree has helped people find better jobs as the economy recovers, he says, a factor that has reinforced interest in MBAs.

As vaccination rates increase, business schools in many parts of the world have reopened, albeit with measures such as Covid testing, face coverings and, in some cases, mandatory jabs. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty about how to handle it,” says Shelly Heinrich, associate dean for MBA admissions at Georgetown McDonough. “We now know so much more about how to keep the community safe.”

From the spring of 2020 through much of the following year, on-campus MBAs were taught remotely or in a blended format. As lockdown restrictions eased, schools, such as Georgetown: McDonough, that had responded to demands and from students for tuition fee discounts raised fees again to pre-Covid levels.

Yet, in a global market for business education, students from around the world face ongoing travel restrictions and visa delays. Embassies, which suspended consular services at various points in the pandemic, are struggling to clear a backlog of applications.

Guy Ford, MBA director at University of Sydney Business School, says 40 students from the 2021 intake deferred their entry until 2022 because of Australia’s border closures. “They didn’t want to do the programme online because it just isn’t the same rich experience,” he says. “We have a potential bottleneck situation for 2022 as we try to admit new students and those who deferred.”

Many business schools have cancelled eagerly anticipated study trips abroad, along with other experiential learning and recruitment opportunities, raising questions about the quality of the student experience as the pandemic persists.

But Nalisha Patel, regional director for Europe at the GMAC, says the most ambitious students will relish the challenge of embarking on an MBA in these trying times.

“It will be enriching in its own right,” she says. “There are some elements of the student experience that are different, but learning how to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity will be an asset in their careers.”

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