GME: Today & Tomorrow Fall 2019

Penn State’s MBA Admissions Director Reflects on the GMAC Survey and Growth Strategies A fter the release of the 2018 Application Trends Survey Report from GMAC, we talked to Michael Waldhier — admissions director of the Smeal College of Business at Penn State and a member of the BusinessCAS advisory board — about how Penn State had anticipated years ago the trends uncovered by the survey; namely, that international applicant interest in U.S. schools would decrease, that the strengthening U.S. economy would make it less likely for adults to return to school and that top 8-10 schools in the U.S. would broaden their pool to capture applicants who would otherwise consider going to schools like Penn State. Read on to learn more about how Penn State responded with strategic moves that have led to a stronger, more robust program even as other programs around the country are shrinking.

When the 2018 Application Trends Survey Report from GMAC came out, it stated that “Regionally, most U.S. MBA programs of all types report declines in application volumes this year, including 70% of U.S. full-time two-year MBA programs.” The actual statistics cited for U.S. MBA programs are sobering — for example, 70% of full-time 2-year programs and 53% of 1-year programs reported a decline. CNBC reported recently that this downward trend has been attributed to factors including a decline in the value of the degree as the economy has strengthened, as well as rising tuition costs and even immigration policies (for international enrollments). But you and your fellow BusinessCAS advisory board members actually anticipated these trends a long time ago. How did you see this coming? Michael Waldhier (MW): About five years ago, the MBA program here at Penn State did a study looking at the trends overall for education. The

So as the admissions director at Penn State’s MBA program, what did you do when you figured out which way the trends were starting to go? MW: Because of what we learned from our study, we knew years ago that we had to start looking at ways we could entice top-tier candidates to come to us if we were going to be competitive in what was rapidly becoming an even more competitive marketplace. We came up with a three-pronged strategy that has proven enormously successful for our program: 1) We started offering fellowships. To help make sure students admitted to our program had the best chance possible of graduating and achieving their career goals, we looked at how we might relax other burdens in their lives. One thing we knew we could do right away was to offer financial support options that would allow more students to focus their attention on academics instead of worrying about how they were going to pay for tuition. 2) We set an enrollment cap. Our program, which has always been

results even back then showed that if your program was in the top 10, your pool was growing and the number of applicants was growing. If you were in the top 11-25 or 11-30, you were flat to down in terms of admissions numbers, and if you were below that the results showed you were down significantly. In other words, to counter the problem of declining enrollment, we recognized early on that top schools would have to start broadening their outreach to bring in prospects they might not have looked at before — and we knew we had to do that, too. Of course, it makes sense. As the pool of applicants across the board gets smaller, you’re going to start offering incentives such as funds and scholarships to folks who otherwise might have gone to a different program. I think it’s important to note that this year was one of the first years that all the top 10 schools saw declines in their application pools. I think that trend will continue, and that as applications drop, even the top 10 schools may struggle to keep their current levels of enrollment.


GME: Today & Tomorrow | Fall 2019

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