The Changing Nature of ‘Selection’ in Graduate Management Education

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Tuesday, July 2, 2019
Sangeet Chowfla
President and CEO, Graduate Management Admission Council
Photo by iStock
With increased globalization and new and different program types on the market, how has "selection" shifted for business school admissions?

“Selection” is commonly defined as the action of choosing someone or something as being the best or most suitable.

Business school admissions has always been about selection. Each year, aspiring candidates apply to the schools of their choice, which, in turn, make a selection of their own. Which qualified candidates should they admit? Who offers the best mix of capability, experience, drive, and diversity to fit within that program?

While selection has always been about admitting the most suitable applicants, the process has been heavily influenced by demand consistently exceeding supply.

Application volumes for graduate business programs have generally exceeded enrollment capacity, and this imbalance has allowed business schools to select the most suitable applicants. This surplus has created an environment where “selecting” from an abundant pool of qualified candidates has become the norm.

However, graduate management education (GME) is changing. While classes continue to be qualified and reflect “select” candidates, application volumes are declining for full-time MBA programs in the United States, as students look at geographies—and program types—available elsewhere. But the impacts associated with the changing landscape of GME aren’t limited to just the full-time MBA. Part-time programs, traditionally regarded as somewhat less selective, are being disrupted by online formats. Pre-experience master’s programs often have direct admits from affiliated undergraduate institutions.

These changes have caused the very purpose of selection to be questioned. If applications closely track enrollment, the argument goes, is there any need for a selective admissions process? Are we approaching something close to open admissions?

I believe the answer is no, for several reasons. First, selectivity—the choice of one from many—has not gone away. A look at recent U.S. News & World Report data for the 2020 Best Business Schools ranking shows that the enrollment-to-application ratio for full-time MBA programs is still significant.

Also, a recent GMAC analysis of 246 U.S. full-time MBA programs that disclose enrollment data on U.S. News & World Report’s website showed that 119,338 applications resulted in 18,829 enrollments, a ratio of 16 percent (the offer-to-application ratio was somewhat higher, at 31 percent, reflecting the need for a higher offer rate to offset yield losses as candidates apply to multiple schools).

Even in so-called less selective part-time MBA programs, the enrolled-to-application ratio was 58 percent, implying that there were nearly double the number of applications than available seats. While ratios will vary for individual schools, the need for schools to choose—or select—clearly still exists. This selection is often to find the best, the first part of the “selection” definition at the beginning of this post.

Regardless of selectivity ratios, there are other, and sometimes more important, reasons for selection. The above definition describes selectivity as choosing the best or the most suitable, and in the context of GME, this second aspect is most important. Schools need to admit the most suitable applicants for the following reasons:

  • Readiness: Schools have a need to evaluate whether the candidate is adequately prepared for the rigors of the program. Do they have the reasoning, critical thinking, verbal, or quantitative abilities to keep pace and contribute?
  • Cohort fit: Unique among other forms of higher education is the extent to which candidates learn from each other in GME programs. This is the essence of post-experience, case-based programs. While a cohort benefits from diversity of thought and experiences, it demands a similarity in capability to enable the discussions to move forward at an acceptable pace.
  • Completion: This is somewhat related to readiness. An admission decision must consider the likelihood of completion. A candidate who is unprepared for the rigor of the program may also be more likely to not complete it.
  • Employability: Candidates make a significant commitment of time and money to go to a specific program. They have an expectation of increased employability or career enhancement. Outcomes are often measured against some sort of employability yardstick, and school brands and rankings are adversely affected by negative outcomes. This evaluation of employability is an even more important factor for international admissions.

A last factor to consider is the signaling impact on both employers and candidates. The fact that an individual was admitted to a particular school and went through the process to get in and then graduate is an important signaling mechanism to prospective employers, particularly for graduates from full-time MBA programs. This signal stays with an individual throughout their career, even after the knowledge learned initially may no longer be as relevant. A school’s reputation rests on this assumption among employers, meaning less selective, or more open, admissions processes can do long-term harm.

Candidates, too, view this signal as an important one. They are essentially buying into a long-term cohort of alumni, and the career progression of that cohort will affect the brand value of their own degree. Graduate Management Admission Council™ (GMAC™) research shows that, as much as they talk about the rigors of the Graduate Management Admission Test™ (GMAT™), many candidates are reluctant to apply to a school that does not require it; put simply, they don’t want to be part of a club that lets everyone in.

There are many reasons for a school to have a robust selection process. One is the need to deal with selectivity, to sort multiple applications and choose the best candidates. Even without selectivity, selection remains important for schools to ensure a class that is intellectually ready, can contribute to the cohort, is employable, and—for both candidates and business schools—to maintain the signaling value of a school’s degree.

In today’s environment of enrollment pressure, the inclination to potentially open up and reduce the burdens of the admission process is natural. However, by staying true to selectivity, even in a dynamic, changing GME environment, schools can maintain and increase their signaling value, enhance cohort cohesiveness, improve employment outcomes, and protect the long-term value proposition of their brand.

Sangeet Chowfla
President and CEO, Graduate Management Admission Council
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