Can U.S. schools adapt to a turbulent time?

Executive Summary

In an era of disruption, business education programs at U.S. colleges and universities are not immune from the shock waves. Schools are competing vigorously for students as applications to traditional MBA programs fall. The popularity of online graduate business study is soaring, in part because it is far less costly than traditional programs. Students are increasingly opting for specialization, and schools are intensifying their efforts to distinguish themselves from their competitors. The result is a shakeout that is proving to be turbulent, and in some cases lethal: In recent years, a number of major universities have ended their full-time MBA programs. Others are condensing the length of the traditional two-year program or increasing students’ opportunities to work toward a degree part time.

Key takeaways include:

  • Applications to traditional MBA programs have dropped for the past four academic years, and in 2017–18 even the most prestigious schools experienced declines.

  • Interest in U.S. schools’ programs also is falling among international students, who once provided a buffer against declining enrollment but now are turning to schools in other countries amid tougher U.S. immigration policies.

  • Business school curriculums are evolving to meet student demands for coursework that more closely reflects the real world, focusing on issues such as social entrepreneurship and partnering with local institutions to help effect change in their communities.

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Resources for Further Study



Davis, Gerald F., “The Vanishing American Corporation: Navigating the Hazards of a New Economy,” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2016. A University of Michigan associate dean and professor says the nature of American corporations has changed and ways of managing them must change, too.

Khurana, Rakesh, “From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession,” Princeton University Press, 2007, updated 2010. A Harvard Business School professor recounts the history of business education and contends management should be elevated as a profession.

Roberts, Sara, “Nimble, Focused, Feisty: Organizational Cultures That Win in the New Era and How To Create Them,” BenBella Books, 2016. An executive consultant explains that rapid technology shifts have made 21st-century corporations more unstable and discusses how future leaders must face such challenges.

Treadgold, Warren, “The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education,” Encounter Books, 2018. A professor of Byzantine Studies and History at Saint Louis University contends that U.S. universities should abolish specialties such as business administration programs and focus on broader topics such as economics.


Boyington, Brianna, “Explore the 2019 Best Business Schools,” U.S. News & World Report, March 19, 2018, The magazine offers its annual rankings of the country’s best business schools, with separate rankings for online programs.

Le, Cindy, “How Can U.S. MBA Programs Respond to Declining Demand from International MBA Students?” World Education News & Reviews, Oct. 17, 2017, A research associate offers a prescription for schools to continue attracting foreign students, including innovation in their curriculums and shortening the time needed to get a degree.

Linker, Lawrence, “4 Myths About MBA Admissions Dispelled by Data,” Forbes, Sept. 15, 2017, The co-founder and CEO of MBA Link, a firm that advises applicants to MBA programs, looks at perceptions of candidates’ ability to win admission.

Zarya, Valentina, and Grace Donnelly, “What’s Killing U.S. Business Schools? These 4 Charts Help Explain,” Fortune, Oct. 20, 2017, Two journalists cite reasons why U.S. business schools are suffering, including the proliferation of non-MBA degrees and a lower number of international students.

Reports and Studies

“Reforming Management Education,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, September 2018, An ongoing series of seven articles on how to reform business management and public policy schools, their curriculums and their research products.

“The Year In Review,” Harvard Business School, 2017, The country’s most prestigious business school issues its annual report.

Colby, S., and Bruggeman, P., “What Women Want: A Blueprint for Change In Business Education,” Graduate Management Admission Council, March 2017, A research report by the council that oversees the Graduate Management Admission Test looks at the ways women approach graduate management education, how they deal with the application process and the challenges they face.

The Next Step

Gender Disparity

“Berkeley Haas ranks No. 2 in U.S. for women MBAs, and No. 3 in the world,” Berkeley News, March 6, 2018, Female graduates of the MBA program at the University of California, Berkeley, earn on average 3 percent more than their male peers in the first three years after getting their degrees.

Leiber, Nick, “The Fight for Female MBAs,” Bloomberg, June 8, 2018, Business schools are pushing to close the gender gap in their student bodies, offering full scholarships and other benefits to female applicants.

Tozer, Alice, “A Major Business School Reaches Gender Parity Among MBA Students for the First Time,” Fortune, July 25, 2018, Just over half of the incoming fall 2018 class at the University of Southern California Marshall Business School is female, making it the first MBA program in the country to achieve gender parity.

International Students

Byrne, John, “Dean Of Duke’s B-School: Trump’s Immigration Policy Could Make The U.S. An ‘Economic Dinosaur,’” Forbes, Aug. 31, 2018, MBA programs are reporting declines in international applicants this year, as more students from abroad grow concerned about anti-immigration attitudes in the United States, says Duke University’s business school dean.

Chadha, Janaki, and Kelsey Gee, “‘U.S. Workers Only’: Companies Hesitate to Hire Foreign M.B.A. Students,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 1, 2018, As the Trump administration tightens worker visa rules, the number of U.S. companies willing to hire international graduates from business schools has declined by 8 percent since last year, according to a recent survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Lewington, Jennifer, “Trump drives some international MBA seekers to Canada,” The Globe and Mail, updated Sept. 14, 2018, The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies have led more international students seeking MBAs to apply to schools in other countries, such as Canada.


AACSB International
777 S. Harbour Island Blvd., Suite 750, Tampa, FL 33602
Represents global business schools and has more than 1,400 members worldwide.

Chartered Association of Business Schools
3rd Floor, 40 Queen St., London, EC4R 1DD, UK
+44 (0)20 7236 7678
Represents British schools teaching business and management.

Council of Graduate Schools
1 Dupont Circle, N.W., Suite 230, Washington, DC 20036
A leading source of data, information and trends about graduate school enrollment.

Forte Foundation
9600 Escarpment, Suite 745 PMB 72, Austin, TX 78749
A nonprofit consortium of business schools and corporations aimed at encouraging women to pursue business education and business careers.

Graduate Management Admission Council
11921 Freedom Drive, Suite 300, Reston, VA 20190
Oversees the testing requirements for graduate school admission.

Curt-Bar-Weg 25, 21035 Hamburg, Germany
+(49) 40 360 27150
A German-based company that offers information about undergraduate and graduate degree programs across Europe.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680430.n1