U.S. B-Schools Tell Foreign Students It’s Time to Come Back

In 2016 half of American MBA programs reported an increase in international students. The following year less than a third saw international applications climb as many foreign students, put off by the “America First” rhetoric of the new Trump administration, looked elsewhere. For the last four years there was “a perception that applying to business schools in the U.S. was a riskier proposition,” says Brigitte Madrian, dean of the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University, which saw a 60% increase in international students from 2011 to 2016 but ended the decade with fewer than it had in 2010.

The beneficiaries of this trend, of course, were non-U.S. programs. At Rotman School of Management in Toronto, the number of international students jumped 45% from 2015 to 2020. Essec, a B-school near Paris where 94% of MBA candidates are non-French, saw applications increase by half last year. International interest in European programs has been on the rise since 2017, and last year 74% of schools there reported global applications either climbed or stayed stable. “European and Canadian schools have benefited from people who otherwise would have gone to the U.S.,” says Virginie Fougea, director of admissions at Insead, which has campuses in France and Singapore.

Two months into the Biden administration, U.S. schools are cautiously optimistic that the tide will turn in their favor. Marriott saw a 117% increase in international applicants for the class of 2022. And NYU Stern says global interest was strong last year, with a third of that class holding non-U.S. passports. But Miami Herbert Business School says applications from China—a key component of the international student body for most programs—are about the same as last year. Chinese students “who would prefer to come to the U.S. are hedging their bets by also applying to Canadian and U.K. schools,” says John Quelch, Herbert’s dean.

Non-U.S. programs, meanwhile, are trying to maintain the advantages they gained during the Trump administration. One big selling point is price: European schools cost $40,000 to $100,000 for the one-year programs typical there, vs. roughly $150,000 for a two-year degree at a top U.S. school. “Although immigration and visa policies may have influenced candidates’ choice, we also noticed that cost had a great impact on the decision,” says Antonella Moretto, associate dean of MIP Politecnico di Milano, which charges about $44,000 for a degree.

Biden is clearly less antagonistic than Trump, but many foreigners have lingering concerns about how welcoming Americans really are. That doubt has spurred non-U.S. schools to stress their open atmosphere and the multicultural makeup of the student body. At Oxford Saïd in England, for instance, less than 10% of students are from the U.K. That means that once on campus, “most people are in a minority, and that’s why they choose to come,” says Matthew Conisbee, the school’s MBA program director.

Many foreigners had long seen an MBA from an American school as a first step toward employment in the U.S., but Trump barred new H1-B visas, which allow skilled immigrants to work in the country. Biden has lifted some Trump-era immigration restrictions, but he hasn’t reversed the H-1B ban, which is set to expire on March 31. Meanwhile, Rotman has been highlighting Canada’s relatively lax visa policies, including the ease of getting a three-year postgraduate work permit.

B-schools rise and fall on the perceived value of a degree, the connections one makes while studying, and especially the employment prospects of graduates. Four classes of MBA students have now had ample incentive to explore Europe, Asia, and beyond, and many have found highly paid jobs outside the U.S.—proving that an American MBA isn’t required for success. That alone offers a good reason for non-U.S. schools to be optimistic, says Joseph Milner, vice dean of Rotman’s MBA program. “Students may have more options than under the last U.S. administration,” he says. “But many have learned about Rotman and see it, and Canada, as a good move.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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