Amid national declines in the number of people applying to MBA programs in recent years, business schools in West Michigan are reporting mixed results.
While applications to the MBA programs dropped at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University, both Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University reported receiving higher numbers of applications in recent years. Likewise, MBA enrollment trends were all over the map, with MSU and GVSU reporting more students while both WMU and CMU saw the opposite.
School officials say it’s hard to pinpoint what is driving the trends or even to compare programs because the schools have different offerings and appeal to different students.
Nationally, the number of people applying to MBA programs dropped for a fourth straight year. Top-tier universities had appeared to be immune, but even Harvard and Stanford universities reported a 4-percent to 5-percent decline in applications, according to a survey of 360 schools by the Graduate Management Admission Council, a nonprofit that administers the GMAT admissions exam. University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, one of the region’s most competitive, saw a 9-percent decline in applications in 2018.
According to education industry watchers, the issues could stem from higher debt levels many prospective students already are saddled with from their undergraduate degrees. The region’s business schools say they partner with employers who offer tuition assistance to incentivize the degree, and many students do receive some reimbursement. However, in most cases, it covers less than half of tuition costs, leaving the majority of the bill for an MBA as the student’s responsibility.
As well, given the strong economy, many people simply may be unable to afford stepping away from a full-time job.
Here’s a look at how the MBA programs at public universities in West Michigan stack up.
MSU ‘in lockstep’ with trends
Michigan State University is the only college in the area with a traditional full-time program. Applications to MSU’s Broad College of Business program have dropped, “but it is in lockstep with aggregate macro trends in the industry,” said Scott Smith, director of graduate admissions for the business college.
Smith attributes the dip to a macro-level decline in applications from international students, who comprise between 25 percent and 30 percent of MSU’s MBA enrollees. Smith said retention and graduation rates are “certainly constant.”
“I don’t by any means think it is an indictment on the demand for the degree as a whole,” Smith said, noting there is still strong demand from both students and employers who value MBAs.
MSU’s professional MBA program targets students who have worked three to five years. The full-time MBA is a two-year, cohort-based program on campus with an internship and experiential learning opportunities. In fall 2018, 83 students were enrolled in the program, up slightly from 74 students in fall 2017.
MSU does not have an online MBA program, but does offer specialty master’s degree programs and an executive MBA program for working professionals with more experience. The college also offers joint degrees with other colleges, including for medical and legal professionals looking to learn more about business.
“The key is we’re always evaluating what the needs are, and making sure when people come here they are really getting the degree that is going to accentuate their skills set to achieve their career goals,” Smith said.
'Mixed' results in GVSU
At Grand Valley State University, the Seidman College of Business has seen an increase in MBA applications, up from 65 for fall 2017 to 134 applications for fall 2018.
“It’s a mixed answer, yes and no,” said Koleta Moore, assistant dean of student engagement and graduate program operations for Seidman College of Business, when asked about MBA applications. “It’s dropped off from the height of the MBA in the early 1990s, but we have seen a growth in recent years.”
GVSU’s Seidman College of Business offers both an executive and professional MBA and recently revamped its curriculum and program delivery. The college also adjusted some admission requirements. The GMAT is still required, but there are options to request a waiver based on previous academic performance or time in the workplace, Moore said.
The professional MBA is a part-time program for working professionals, typically with three to eight years of experience who aspire to become mid-level managers or advance within their company. In fall 2018, the college debuted a cohort model in which the same group of students start and finish together and graduate in two years.
“It’s a 36-credit hour MBA that they complete in 22 months,” Moore said. “It can really fit into their life.”
The executive MBA is designed for people with more experience who want to move into a vice president, CFO or CEO role. GVSU’s executive MBA program accepts 25 students a year, while the professional program has three cohorts a year with a maximum of 90 students. Both programs were full for the 2018-19 school year.
It’s too early to determine the overall effect of the changes, but Moore said the applications are an indication of increased interest. The college and a faculty task force looked at retention, time to graduation and best practices when deciding to shift from open enrollment to the cohort model.
“When you compare it to some of the trends you see nationally, the MBA at Grand Valley is holding strong and growing and is going to continue to be a great partner in talent development in West Michigan,” Moore said.
Reflecting the economy
Meanwhile, Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business has experienced a decline in applications and enrollment on par with national trends. Dr. Steve Newell, associate dean for graduate programs and operations, attributes it in part to a stronger economy and low unemployment.
“We do tend to see higher enrollment in the MBA when the economy is slowing and people are looking to make a career shift,” he said.
WMU’s MBA program caters to the working professional who wants to attend part-time and take one or two classes a semester. Most students are in their late 20s or early 30s and graduate in three to four years.
Newell said international MBA students have held steady at 17 percent to 19 percent, but most international students come from universities that have an established relationship with WMU.
One high note: The number of female MBA students has increased from 35 percent to 43 percent of enrollees.
WMU continues to explore more flexible course delivery, such as hybrid courses with content delivered in-person and virtually, and talks with students and employers about the value the MBA provides. In courses, students practice leadership skills, project management and other competencies directly applicable to their field and career advancement.
The Haworth College of Business partners with employers to offer specialized MBAs; for example, the college may present an accelerated program onsite to a group of engineers. Some companies want to use data and business cases of their own as part of the curriculum.
The college’s faculty are willing to customize components of the MBA to meet those needs, Newell said, and they continue to work with industry and individuals to make sure the degree has value in the marketplace.
At Central Michigan University, applications for the on-campus, or face-to-face, MBA program are slightly higher compared to the 2014-15 academic year, said Aparna Lhila, interim director of both on-campus and online MBA programs and an associate professor of economics.
“The applications are actually going up; the number of applicants who actually enroll is not going up,” she said.
Lhila attributes this to the stronger economy, but also to the declining numbers of student F-1 visas issued by the U.S. Department of State. For instance, Lhila said three students from India planned to attend CMU but had their student visas denied. She also noticed that trend in her previous role as graduate coordinator for the economics program.
International students used to account for two-thirds of students in the face-to-face program. Now they make up one-third of students in the program, she said.
The face-to-face program experienced a dip in enrollment in 2015-16 and has been stable since then, Lhila said. Enrollment in CMU’s online program has more than doubled over the same time.
Sixty-two students currently are enrolled in the face-to-face program, whereas around 500 students are participating in the online MBA program. Seventy percent of online students are from Michigan.
“The main goal of our new initiatives is to diversify our student body and offer a curriculum that prepares our students to be leaders in a constantly evolving business world,” Lhila said.
CMU recently signed an agreement with ITESO, Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara, in Mexico. The partnership allows ITESO’s MBA students to participate in MBA classes at CMU, mostly online but also potentially by coming to the main campus.
CMU is working on a dual degree MD-MBA program for students in the campus or residency portion of their medical education at CMU, and also is discussing ways to take the MBA program to people in remote areas of Michigan, according to Lhila.