Report finds accelerated demand for graduate business degrees in 2021 amid declining concerns about COVID-19

Data highlight how prospective students perceive remote learning and preferred study destinations

Reston, VA March 30, 2021 – Interest in graduate management education (GME) programs in 2021 continues to grow among prospective students, a trend that coincides with waning concerns about the impact of COVID-19, according to a new report published today by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC™). The Council’s 2021 Prospective Students Survey Report finds that the proportion of respondents reporting that they are extremely or very concerned about COVID-19 declined from 41 to 33 percent over the survey period.  In addition, three in four (73%) international candidates planning to pursue an MBA outside their country of citizenship are not changing their original plans despite the pandemic.

Key Findings

Women candidates are more receptive to remote learning than men 

Although studies have suggested that the impact of COVID-19 has been particularly severe on women as they shouldered more responsibilities of remote education and work, GMAC report has found that many female candidates remain undeterred and are willing to adapt their plans for higher education. Specifically, women candidates are more likely to seek the flexibility of online learning than men. They are willing to accept a higher proportion of their degree to be completed online and are more likely to agree that career opportunities gained through an on-campus graduate business degree are the same as those gained through an online degree.

“As vaccines become increasingly available, prospective students around the world are seeing light at the end of the tunnel regarding the global pandemic,” said Sangeet Chowfla, president and CEO of GMAC. “It is especially encouraging to find female candidates seeking advanced business degrees for career advantages despite the unique challenges and barriers they face due to COVID-19.” 

More candidates are considering GME to upgrade skills amidst COVID uncertainties 

While more than half of prospective candidates (58%) confirmed that they “always plan to pursue a graduate business degree at this point,” over a third of the prospective candidates (37%) reported that they are seeking GME now because they “want to apply for a job but lack required skills and/or degree to be competitive.” The accelerated demand for GME may be a result of the fact that more candidates recognize the need to emerge out of a shaky economy more career ready.

“COVID-19 has fundamentally disrupted the future of work and the skills that are required for future success,” said Soojin Kwon, Managing Director, Full Time MBA Admissions & Program at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and GMAC Board Director. “This is something that business schools are fully aware of and adapting to as candidates seek to upgrade their professional and leadership skills to meet the demands of the rapidly changing workplace.” 

International candidates still prefer mobility over online

Over 40 percent of international candidates – those who wish to study outside of their country of citizenship - surveyed report working outside their country of citizenship as the primary career motivation. The opportunities to live and work abroad explain why international candidates (70%) are more likely to report that they are not changing their original plans compared to domestic candidates (52%) amidst a global pandemic. Most international candidates therefore continue to value mobility and do not prefer substituting in-person experience with online learning. 

United States and United Kingdom remain top destinations for international students 

International candidates continue to look to the US as one of their top three choices to study business abroad. Prospective students from India rank the US their top choice, ahead of their home country, while those from Canada and the UK pick the US as their first international destination. Prospective candidates from Greater China identify the United Kingdom (27%) to be their preferred study destination, followed by the United States (21%) and Singapore (12%). Rising tension between the US and China in recent years may have discouraged prospective Chinese students from coming to America for their advanced degrees, coupled with the growth of high-quality business school programs in China and the Asia Pacific region. 

More on the GMAC Survey Series

The Prospective Students Survey was conducted based on data collected on a monthly basis between July and December 2020 from a total of 2,515 individuals worldwide who indicated plans to enroll in a GME program in 2021. More than 7 million candidates on their business master's or MBA journey visited last year to explore business school options, prepare and register for exams, and get advice on the admissions process.

The 2020 GMAC Application Trends Survey, released in November 2020, gathered and analyzed responses from over 1,000 graduate management programs worldwide to find that applications to graduate business school programs went up, with variations in growth rates by region and program due to online learning, travel, and visa concerns. This report and additional research on global trends in graduate management education are available on the GMAC website here.

About GMAC™

The Graduate Management Admission Council™ (GMAC™) is a mission-driven association of leading graduate business schools worldwide. Founded in 1953, GMAC creates solutions and experiences that enable business schools and candidates to better discover, evaluate, and connect with each other. 

GMAC™ provides world-class research, industry conferences, recruiting tools, and assessments for the graduate management education industry, as well as tools, resources, events, and services that help guide candidates through their higher education journey. Owned and administered by GMAC, the Graduate Management Admission Test™ (GMAT™) exam is the most widely used graduate business school assessment; GMAC™ also owns and administers the NMAT by GMAC™ (NMAT™) exam and the Executive Assessment (EA). BusinessBecause and The MBA Tour are subsidiaries of GMAC™, a global organization with offices in China, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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