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3 Defining Moments for Business Education in 2020

The year 2020 will be remembered as a year of great crisis—but also as a transformative year that would shape the future of business education.

The coronavirus outbreak triggered a tidal wave of change for business education in 2020, but COVID-19 is not the only issue business school leadership have faced this year.

In 2020, we saw political instability, social movements, and a new generation of students effect change on business school campuses. We saw visa restrictions and travel bans. Leading business education organizations united to request a delay in upcoming rankings.

After the COVID outbreak, we saw campus shutdowns, GMAT test center closures, and full-time programs moved online. Some MBA students petitioned for tuition fee refunds; many didn’t feel the online environment matched the face-to-face experience. Yet business schools received record application volumes in 2020.

Even in these challenging circumstances, schools made renewed commitments to diversity and inclusion, introducing new community initiatives, working to diversify curriculum and faculty, and widening access to business education.

Reflecting on the past year, three defining moments emerge—events that will shape the future of business education, not just in 2021, but for many decades to come.

1. Coronavirus Outbreak

Date: 12/31/2019
Location: Wuhan, China

After the outbreak of COVID-19, business schools were faced with a sudden change in circumstance: social distancing mandates, shifting student demands, budget cuts, and travel restrictions. In response, schools innovated, changed their delivery models, and made a rapid switch to online learning.

Schools adjusted their admissions processes—introducing video interviews and attending virtual recruitment events—and some requirements were relaxed. Faculty learned to teach virtually, and digitally savvy professors shared their learnings with less-experienced colleagues.

At Cranfield University’s Cranfield School of Management in the U.K., Management MSc students embarked on a virtual internship program in 2020, which makes up 40 percent of their overall grade, working on online projects for tech startups and e-commerce firms. London Business School students volunteered with local SMEs impacted by COVID-19 and organized deliveries to local food banks and homeless shelters.

Germany’s WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management launched its first online MBA program, allowing students to pursue the program in 18- or 36-month tracks or by completing individual certifications over five years. The University of Illinois’s Gies College of Business, after shifting its residential full-time MBA completely online, introduced a new online Master of Science in Management degree (iMSM) in partnership with Coursera.

Despite COVID-19, nearly two out of three graduate management programs globally reported an increase in applications in 2020, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) Application Trends Survey.

While challenges related to COVID-19 will continue, the crisis has presented schools with an opportunity to pivot and change. From their experience of the crisis, and through investments made in technology infrastructure, schools emerge more agile—able to switch seamlessly between offline and online delivery methods—and more prepared to overcome those challenges than ever before.

2. Black Lives Matter Protests

Date: 5/25/2020
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, following the death of George Floyd, sprung the business school community into action in 2020. Student groups, many organized through the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA), mobilized, advising leadership and fellow students how to better support underrepresented people.

Erika James, the first woman and first person of color to become dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and former AACSB board member, began her tenure with a live TV interview, addressing racial injustice in society. London’s Cass Business School then dropped its name because of its historical connection with slavery.

The BLM movement, reinvigorated in 2020, saw schools take further steps to foster diversity in their classrooms. The Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville created a business class on how to address structural racism, while global business school INSEAD pledged to increase its scholarship budget for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

In July, the Stanford Graduate School of Business at Stanford University released its Action Plan for Racial Equity, pledging to diversify its cohorts, faculty, and case studies. The school also established the BOLD Fellows Fund to support students with financial hardship and to uphold its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Thirty-seven percent of Stanford’s new MBA class of 2022 are U.S. students of color.

Yet Black students and faculty remain severely underrepresented at business schools. Stanford has just nine under-represented minorities on its faculty. Less than 10 percent of people from the U.S. who take the GMAT—the leading business school admissions test—are Black.

Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business is combatting this pipeline issue with Georgetown Reach, a program that introduces eighth grade students and their families to the possibilities and benefits of going to college. The one-week program—now taking place virtually—is designed to raise awareness among underrepresented minority students that attending college is a viable option.

Looking ahead, it’s vital to keep the issues that the BLM movement amplified in 2020 top of mind. By 2027, the majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 will be non-white, and it’s among those underrepresented populations where future growth opportunities for business schools are most prevalent.

3. The U.S. Presidential Election

Date: 11/03/2020
Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Business schools had a difficult relationship with the Trump administration in 2020. 50 business school deans signed an open letter demanding changes to Trump’s immigration policy, following consistent drops in applications from international students.

When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that the Department of State would not issue F-1 visas to students enrolled in programs that were fully online for the fall semester, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) prepared to sue. The visa rule was then revoked.

As business schools struggled to present the U.S. as a welcoming environment for international students under Trump, a pre-election poll suggested that international students were more likely to study in the U.S. if Joe Biden were elected president.

Biden’s election victory now provides the possibility of a different way forward, impacting not just U.S. business schools but prospective students globally. Biden has already promised to revoke the suspension on the issuing of new H-1B work visas, a critical issue for international candidates looking to work in the U.S.

Moody’s predicts a bright economic outlook under Biden, with 18.6 million new jobs and an unemployment rate of just over 4 percent by the second half of 2022, while the U.S. is likely to be more collaborative and open to trade with other nations post-Trump.

The reach and responsibility of U.S. business schools extends globally. China’s Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management’s Global MBA was established and is run in partnership with MIT Sloan School of Management. The Kellogg-HKUST EMBA is run by HKUST Business School in Hong Kong and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Still the foremost market for management education, a stronger, more outward-looking U.S. will only benefit the industry as a whole.

2020 and the Future

Despite the challenges of 2020, the fundamental value of business education remains.

One survey found that 84 percent of MBA students reported that their study experience either met or exceeded their expectations in 2020. When corporate recruiters surveyed by GMAC were asked whether they still planned to hire business school graduates in 2021, the vast majority (89 percent) said yes, despite the tricky economic climate.

Tough times are ahead. More than 75 percent of institutions made staff and general budget cuts during COVID-19, according to an Eduvantis survey of U.S. business school deans. While top-ranked schools expect revenue growth, those outside the top 100 have struggled to compete, particularly in the online space.

The defining moments of 2020 provide challenges for business schools, but the lessons they have learned can propel schools to further widen access, diversify their classes, and continue to improve their educational offerings for students, offline, online, and wherever they study.

Marco De Novellis is the editor of BusinessBecause, an online publisher dedicated to graduate management education, and is the creator and host of the podcast, The Business School Question. Follow him on Twitter @marcodenov.