Like most other institutions, business schools have felt the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. With campuses forced to close, restrictions on travel, and economic hardships, it has become increasingly challenging to attract the global pool of high-quality candidates that most business schools covet.
At the same time, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the future. By thinking long-term, offering more opportunities for online learning, and being flexible in your approach, you can position your business school to weather the storm, and maybe even come out of this situation stronger.
Keep reading to learn more about how COVID-19 has affected student recruitment for business schools, and how to navigate this difficult period.
How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Study Plans of Business School Candidates?
The pandemic has had a huge impact on the study goals of students across the education sector as a whole, with many reconsidering their plans. For business schools, however, there is some evidence the situation isn’t quite as bleak as it might be in other areas.
The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) has done some very diligent work in tracking the reactions of potential business school candidates as the crisis has unfolded, and some of the results have been encouraging. An April survey found that only 5 percent of respondents intended to abandon the idea of attending business school altogether, suggesting that the pandemic hasn’t made business school a less attractive proposition overall.
However, while the aspirations of candidates have not changed, their plans have. 29 percent of respondents were considering delaying their studies, while 46 percent were considering other alternatives.
GMAC has also consistently found that COVID-19 has become more and more of a potential problem for prospective business school students the longer the pandemic has persisted. In another survey, respondents reported increasing levels of concern that COVID-19 would impact their study plans as the weeks went on and the situation worsened. Interestingly, this upward trend was sharper among female candidates than males, despite the fact that men reported slightly higher levels of concern in the early weeks of the outbreak:
All of this points to a challenging – but not impossible – situation for business school student recruitment. The desire of candidates is still there, but there are issues that need to be addressed to convince them to move forward.
The Effect of the Pandemic on International Business School Student Recruitment
The challenges of the pandemic are perhaps even greater when it comes to international student recruitment for business schools.
In a February survey by QS, 27 percent of prospective international students across university level said the coronavirus had impacted their plans to study abroad, with 37 percent saying they planned to defer their studies. The greater impact of the crisis on international audiences within the business school sector is echoed in another GMAC survey, with both MBA and business master’s students being far more likely than domestic candidates to defer their studies should programs in the fall begin online rather than on-campus.
This speaks to a wider problem of how much those who are interested in international study will value an online MBA or Master’s if it doesn’t come with the promise of being able to live and possibly work in a new country.
Speaking to Reuters, a Chinese student who was considering deferring a program at Wharton Business School said, “The virtual environment might take away a chunk of the MBA experience.” Opportunities to establish themselves professionally, build a network, and experience a new environment are important to business school candidates, and may be tough to replicate.
A crucial caveat to this is that the attitudes of international recruitment prospects might differ based on both where they are from and their study destination. QS’s survey found that 33 percent of international students were now looking at studying in different countries than before.
GMAC’s research into candidate responses by region bears this out, with 47 percent of Central and South Asian respondents, 40 percent of East & Southeast Asians, and 30 percent of candidates in the Middle East & Africa stating that they were considering studying in another geographic area.
This perhaps suggests that international study preferences will shift towards countries which have been less affected by the outbreak, or those that recover and reopen faster.
Example: GISMA Business School in Hanover is offering prospective international students the opportunity to begin their courses online before finishing them on-campus once travel restrictions are lifted. Given Germany has had more success flattening the curve than many other major countries, it may have better chances of reopening sooner rather than later. Its popularity as a study destination could thus dramatically increase in the coming months.
The GMAC report may also hold some interesting insights into exactly what is holding prospects from certain countries back. For example, 34 percent of candidates in Central & South Asia and 33 percent of Middle Eastern and African respondents expressed concern about their ability to secure visas, suggesting logistical fears may be a bigger factor than an unwillingness to travel for some. These numbers were much lower in East and Southeast Asia (13 percent), Europe (5 percent) and the USA (3 percent).
Naturally, this situation will probably begin to improve over the next few months as measures are scaled back, but those schools looking to recruit students for next semester may be better targeting domestic candidates, who might be more receptive to remote learning.
Example: A persona for a domestic business school candidate. Focusing on this audience could be particularly valuable for schools right now.
Having said that, it’s important not to discount trying to recruit international students entirely. Business school recruitment is often a long game, and given how different things could be by this time next year, keeping your school top of mind for international prospects could be essential to your future success.
Mitigating the Barriers to Online Business School Education
As much as online business school education has long been a thriving concern, there is a strong preference for campus-based learning among the majority of business school candidates. As a result, many are reluctant to consider online alternatives, even as a temporary measure. GMAC figures indicate that roughly one in three current candidates would prefer to defer if admitted to a program which would start online next semester:
This suggests that your business school will need to work hard to convince prospects of the worth of completing a degree online. Updating your website to better showcase your LMS could go some way to reassuring prospects that your programs represent a worthwhile investment. If you have been running online courses in the past, sharing testimonials from online graduates, particularly those who have gone on to success in their careers, could be invaluable in persuading those who are on the fence.
Example: Feliciano Business School created this testimonial video from a student in its online MBA program. Social proof like this could be important in convincing prospects to take a chance on remote learning.
Speaking to the Needs and Goals of Business School Candidates During COVID-19
While the situation may have drastically changed for business schools, the fundamentals of business school recruitment remain the same. Developing accurate personas of your ideal candidates, promoting your programs across multiple different online channels, and being persistent in your lead qualification and nurturing are all essential to help your business school weather this storm.
However, there are a number of specific things you can do to help mitigate some of the more unique barriers to enrollment that have arisen for business school candidates as a result of COVID-19.
Creating Virtual Networking Opportunities
One the biggest reasons many prospects are skeptical about learning online is because of the huge importance of building a professional network to the business school experience. Prospects expect to meet and connect with like-minded professionals, and will even be hopeful that companies will seek them out for high profile jobs during their degrees. Speaking to Reuters, a Chinese student who had been admitted to Columbia Business School said, “The most important part of the MBA is recruiting and even that is going to be virtual. I don’t need people to teach me basic accounting. I already know all that.”
However, some schools are making an effort to turn this negative into a positive. In the same article, Sanjeev Khagram, the Dean of The Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, emphasized how his school was encouraging students to treat this as an opportunity to adapt to doing business in a virtual world. This aspect of their education will become increasingly prevalent in the future regardless of social restrictions. “Being effective in this virtual world actually gives them a competitive advantage,” he said of his current incoming class.
With that in mind, there are many ways you could possibly formulate an online experience for business school students that will help them to make the connections they crave. You could, for instance, host virtual networking events, or even invite employers to virtual recruitment fairs.
Example: London Business School created this virtual networking event for prospective students to meet with alumni from the Middle East.
Addressing Post-COVID-19 Career Concerns
Concerns about networking and recruitment opportunities also hint at larger misgivings business school candidates may have about the potential value of their degree in a post-COVID-19 job market.
With many businesses forced to temporarily or permanently close, and others taking massive losses to their income, the damage the pandemic has dealt to the economy has been catastrophic, and may take years to recover from.
As a result, it’s natural that some of your prospects may worry that a master’s or MBA degree, which is not cheap at the best of times, may not provide them the return on investment they had previously hoped.
GMAC data shows that job market concerns have intensified as the crisis has progressed among both domestic and international candidates considering MBA and master’s degrees:
Again, however, it is possible to turn this minus into a plus. Historically, a respected MBA or business master’s degree has actually served to insulate many professionals against economic downturns, with the versatility and range of skills the qualification offers keeping them employable in both good times and bad. Emphasizing this in your marketing efforts could go some way to making them see a business school education as a solution.
Example: This well-timed blog from Berkeley Haas School of Business outlines how can MBA can help you during times of economic uncertainty.
Not only that, but with the economy likely to at least somewhat rebound over the course of the next couple of years, choosing to pursue a degree now could leave candidates in a very good position when opportunities begin to open up again.
Meeting Admissions Requirements Online
Another area of concern you may not be giving much thought to is the difficulty some people will have in meeting requirements for business school admissions during the current crisis. When applying for top business schools, many candidates will be looking to sit GMAT, GRE, or Executive Assessment tests to meet admissions criteria, while international applicants may also need to take courses or sit exams to meet language requirements. During the pandemic, their plans for completing these exams may have been disrupted.
Fortunately, both the GMAT and GRE are now able to be completed online, as are some of the widely recognized language tests, and you might be well-served to ensure interested applicants are aware of this.
It might also be an idea to provide resources to help students prepare for these exams. Forbes reported recently that some test takers have found the transition to taking the GMAT online difficult, particularly the paperless note-taking aspect of the new format (a measure that was deemed necessary to keep the test secure). Creating blogs or online information sessions to help students prepare for this exam – and ensure they know what to expect – could help some of your prospects to navigate this challenge, while also providing content of value that they are sure to appreciate.
Example: BusinessBecause created this article offering test prep tips for the GMAT Online Exam. Your school could share articles like this through your social media accounts, or even create your own.
Some will also be carefully considering how well their resume stacks up against other applicants, and this may also be fraught with problems. For instance, some candidates for executive or professional programs may have recently been laid off due to circumstances beyond their control, and may be worried that they are no longer as attractive an applicant. Reassuring them that they will be judged on their career as a whole, not just their current situation, could encourage them to apply.
Like all areas of the education sector right now, business schools face serious hurdles in trying to meet their enrollment targets. But with a bit of inventiveness and a lot of hard work, it’s more than possible to continue attracting quality applications for your programs.