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Broadening Business School Access for the Black Community

The need for society’s institutions to reify their commitments to diversity and inclusion is more urgent than ever—and one way they can do that is by removing long-standing barriers.

Business schools have a tremendous opportunity right now to create societal change. The challenges that have shaken our world in recent months are not insurmountable. One of those challenges is the systemic racism made bare by unjust actions against the Black community, in particular.

Along with the statements of support for racial equity that business schools quickly disseminated, actions toward diversity and inclusion also need to be felt and seen by stakeholders. Specifically, what are business schools doing to enable greater educational access for the Black community?

Outside of historically Black colleges and universities, Black people are severely underrepresented among business school candidates. Less than 10 percent of people from the United States who take the GMAT—the leading business school admissions test—are Black.

Yet it’s among the underrepresented populations where future recruitment opportunities are most abundant. By 2027, the majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 will be non-white.

In the U.K., the number of Black students attending prestigious Russell Group universities has increased in the past decade, yet Black people are poorly represented in senior academic and university leadership roles, and Black students are less likely to do as well academically than their white counterparts.

That a student’s race can impact their degree outcomes is reflective of wider societal challenges. Black business school graduates earn less than white graduates and black professionals account for less than 5 percent of chief executives in the U.S.

Business schools, with their transformative qualities, have a responsibility to drive societal change, and this begins with initiatives to broaden access for the Black community, helping potential applicants overcome traditional barriers to business school—perception, cost, and community—in order to widen the candidate pool.

Changing Perceptions

The Black Lives Matter movement, which started in the U.S. but has resonated globally, has refocused attention on the role of business schools in society. After the death of George Floyd, business schools spoke out against racism, reaffirming commitments to diversity and inclusion.

Erika James, the first woman and first person of color to become dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, started her tenure with a live TV interview where she addressed racial injustice in society, pointing to the “systemic issues within organizations that prohibit or impede progress for people of color.”

London’s Cass Business School dropped its name due to its historic connection with slavery. Sir John Cass, after whom the school was named, made much of his wealth from the slave trade.

How potential candidates perceive business school education has a significant impact on their choices. Name changes and public statements are steps toward overcoming outdated depictions of business schools as exclusive, all-male, all-white institutions.

Business schools—individually and collectively—have and must continue to showcase the progress that they have made in promoting diversity, to engage with and encourage conversation about racial inequality, and to share stories of black students and alums.

Overcoming the Cost Barrier

While surface changes are helpful, they are hollow without substantial initiatives to back them up. For many business schools, this comes in the form of scholarships.

With the total cost of an MBA at the top schools exceeding 200,000 USD, money is the major barrier to business school faced by Black candidates. African Americans, for example, need to take out loans more often than white Americans to fund their degrees.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, 81 percent of Black master’s graduates took out student loans to finance their degrees, compared with 57 percent of white Americans. Average debt load is 10,000 USD higher for Black candidates, who are also less likely to receive financial support from employers or family.

To support Black candidates, business schools in the U.S., and even as far away as CEIBS in China, have partnered with the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA), offering scholarships through its Collegiate Partnership Program.

At the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, the Marietta and Sherwood Frey Scholarship provides financial support to African American students who show commitment to being role models for future generations. Wharton’s Howard E. Mitchell Fellowship covers the full cost of tuition for selected Black candidates and provides tailored leadership development training.

U.K. business schools are working to overcome their own diversity challenges. The University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School has partnered with the Adara Foundation to offer full scholarships to exceptional female MBA candidates from Africa.

Building Community

Yet the challenges faced by Black candidates go deeper than money alone. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), more than white candidates, underrepresented candidate populations seek out business schools with diverse, close-knit student bodies and collaborative cultures centered on teamwork.

Once at business school, Black students should be welcomed by a supportive environment that encourages active participation and offers established networks and pathways for future development.

Encouraging student clubs is a good place to start. It African American students belonging to business school associations, typically connected to the NBMBAA, who first rallied and spoke out after the death of George Floyd.

At INSEAD, the Africa Club partly works to increase applications from African students, to serve as a resource to support candidates through the admission process, and to help them integrate into the INSEAD community. The club works with similar associations at other schools to co-organize events and offer mentoring opportunities.

Some schools have made changes to the curriculum itself. MBA students at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business take a course that pushes them to test their implicit biases and work to overcome them.

Harvard Business School (HBS) launched its Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship course, which features business cases with Black protagonists, after Professor Steven Rogers, a senior lecturer at Harvard, discovered that less than 1 percent of the case studies published by HBS featured Black business leaders.

Elsewhere, London Business School (LBS) embeds intercultural awareness into student orientation. Every job advertisement for school staff and faculty has a statement encouraging applications from ethnic minority backgrounds. LBS has its own inclusion and diversity board and runs community engagement projects with local schools.

Fifty percent of students at LBS identify as Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic (BAME), up almost 10 percent since 2015. However, less than 5 percent of students, and less than 1 percent of faculty, are Black.

Organizations like The PhD Project in the U.S. specifically address this deficit of diverse faculty. By supporting Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native Americans in their pursuit of doctoral business degrees, the Project encourages a career in academia where underrepresentation is most prevalent.

More Work to Be Done

While business schools have made concerted efforts, it’s clear that there’s more to be done. Diversity on campus is a first step, but schools should work to broaden the candidate pool.

In their current form, business school admissions criteria, for example, demand strong undergraduate degrees, years of work experience, and a level of economic mobility that is less available to Black candidates.

Support for Black students should also extend beyond graduation. Schools can work with organizations like the NBMBAA to provide dedicated career support, mentorship programs, and access to networks of Black business professionals who pass on their knowledge and open doors.

As James points out, “The networks for white Americans in corporate America look very different from the networks of Black folks in corporate America,” and subsequent access to the people making impactful decisions “impedes or can facilitate progress.”

To broaden access for the Black community, it’s critical that schools continue in their efforts to fight racial inequities and demonstrate that the full transformative potential of a business school degree is not limited by racial category.

Marco De Novellis, editor, BusinessBecauseMarco 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.