Q&A: GMAC's Gregg Schoenfeld on What the Survey Tells Us
Since GMAC launched the Application Trends Survey in 2000, it has become the definitive survey about the state of business school applications and makes headlines around the world. Graduate Management News caught up with Gregg Schoenfeld, GMAC director of research, to discuss the survey and what it has revealed over the years.
Q: What does the Application Trends Survey tell us?
A: The GMAC Application Trends Survey documents application trends at the program level. We survey management programs of all types each year and ask them questions such as how many applications they received, and how that number compared with what they saw last year. This allows us to document year-to-year change in application volume. We also ask them about targeted class size, because schools may want to grow some programs while limiting the class size of others.
GMAC researchers have conducted the survey every year since 2000. We’ve seen that full-time MBA program applications tend to run counter-cyclical to the economy. Application levels in the survey peaked in 2002 and 2008, when the global economy was in a downturn. Application levels had the greatest declines in 2004, when the global economy had recovered. As in past recession-recovery periods, application volume to full-time MBA programs has declined since 2008, but this most recent slowdown appears to have not reached the depths of decline as occurred after 2002. In fact, half of full-time MBA programs reported this year that their application volume has held steady or increased compared with 2011 volumes.
The survey has also charted the growing popularity of specialized master’s programs since 2008. In the five years that we have been following specialized master’s degrees, a majority of management, finance, and accounting master’s programs have shown application increases every year. Master of IT management and marketing/communications were new additions in 2012 that also echoed the growth reported by other master’s programs.
Q: Can the survey tell us how much overall applications are up or down?
A: We survey programs, not individual applicants, so we have a good sense of the overall application trends for different types of programs and different regions. But we do not get census-type data on precisely how many business school applicants there are in a given year—because we don’t survey applicants themselves, nor do we weight the figures we get from schools to account for differences in program size or variations for regional norms. What’s more, the survey sample of participating programs changes from one survey year to the next, which can affect results.
That means applicant-level data requires careful interpretation or additional context. For example, full-time two-year MBA programs surveyed in 2012 saw a median of 267 applicants. That was 22 percent lower than the median figure from last year’s survey. But, this year’s survey drew a record 145 full-time two-year MBA programs, including numerous smaller programs that did not take part in the study last year. When we compared the figures from only programs that participated in both 2011 and 2012 surveys (90 programs), the decline was much less severe, with full-time two-year MBA programs showing a median of 350 applications this year, down from the median figure of 385 those programs reported in 2011. That’s just 9 percent lower.
That said, what programs tell us in the Application Trends Survey tends to track with our GMAT volumes — when GMAT volume is up, overall applications to management programs tend to go up, as well.
Q: What other trends does the survey identify?
A: Programs around the world are surveyed about the demographics of their applicant pools, which tell us about gender and age breakdowns of applicants in different types of programs. This helps reveal the distinct student pipelines programs are attracting, including which types of programs draw more international and domestic students, as well as what activities or trends exist in special recruitment efforts that programs use to reach candidates. Added to the list of special recruitment efforts this year were entrepreneurs, pre-experience candidates, and members of the LGBT community.
Q: One of the main benefits to participants is the ability to create benchmark reports. What do schools get from benchmarking data?
A: Our interactive benchmarking reports allow schools to compare their results with aggregate data from five or more peer schools of their own choosing. This offers schools high quality, and highly customizable data, to evaluate their current performance and understand what is possible — and to compare how they’re doing with the competition regionally or globally.