Graduate Management News

October 2016

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

GMAC Viewpoints: Building Diverse Classes Means Changing Perception Held by URP Populations That GME Is for People “Not Like Me”

Second of two reports focused on underrepresented populations in the U.S. business school pipeline offers solutions for improving attraction to this growing market segment.

Projected growth rates among certain U.S. population segments are moving the country toward the day when it becomes what demographers call “majority-minority,” a future where traditional minority groups will comprise the majority of U.S. citizens. U.S. Census Bureau projections estimate the United States will reach this milestone in 2043.1 Younger age groups will get there faster—in just four years—2020—the under-18 segment of U.S. citizens who identify themselves as being a minority population is projected to be minority-majority.

These changing population dynamics pose challenges for U.S. business schools that even today may find it hard to recruit qualified domestic candidates to their programs. This challenge only becomes magnified when one considers that the projected demographic growth affects segments of the U.S. population that already are proportionally underrepresented in graduate management education (GME), including African Americans, people of Hispanic origin, and Native Americans.

To identify opportunities for U.S. business schools to more effectively appeal to these growing and strategically important underrepresented population (URP) segments, GMAC partnered with globalsojourn, a marketing strategy and research firm in Seattle, WA, to gain insights into the dynamics of URP perceptions, interest in, and pursuit of graduate management education. The resulting research study findings are presented in a newly released report, Increasing Graduate Management Education Diversity: Improving Attraction to Underrepresented Segments. This report is the second in a two-part series of GMAC research white papers about URPs, and complements the findings of the first report, a quantitative study of URP prospective students already in the GME pipeline conducted earlier this year by the GMAC Research Services group.2

The research objectives of the globalsojourn study focus on the following:

  • Perceptions of business careers versus other career choices,
  • Consideration of graduate management education (GME) relative to an individual’s current level of education and work experience,
  • Key motivations to pursue GME,
  • Factors that influence consideration of available GME formats, including non-profit or for-profit programs, accreditation, full-time, part-time, and online programs,
  • Barriers to pursuing GME, and
  • Key influencers of consideration and decision.

The globalsojourn study employed the following two-stage methodology to meet its research objectives:

  • Qualitative phase consisting of 84 individual in-depth online video interviews among prospective URP candidates from high school seniors on up to postgraduate students and working professionals. Interviewees also included people who are key student influencers at various points in the educational system including high school and college advisors and administrators, college professors/teachers, business school admissions officers, and parents of high schoolers and undergrad students.
  • Quantitative online survey completed by 1,216 respondents who represent URP segments in the U.S. population at various life stages and educational levels, including college-bound high school seniors, college undergraduates, current GME students, and postgraduate working professionals.

For research purposes, students in URP populations were defined as individuals who self-identify as African American, Native American, or of Hispanic origin, who were either born in the United States or arrived in the country before the age of 12, and who were either neutral about or interested in pursuing graduate education beyond their bachelor’s degree. The findings integrate insights from both the qualitative and quantitative phases of the research and reveal that the path to graduate management education for URPs is a “journey of discovery” for both the prospective students and their families.

Perceptions of and Barriers to GME

According to Sabrina White, GMAC vice president of market development and co-author of the report, the study showed that many prospective GME candidates among underrepresented groups start from a low base of awareness and understanding about GME early in life.

“GME is typically not regarded as an education option early in life but increasingly becomes a more viable option over time with increased education and work experience,” said White. “But there are a number of perceptions and barriers that need to be overcome along the way to encourage greater consideration of graduate management education.”

Some of those barriers revealed in the findings include perceptions, especially among younger respondents, that GME is for people “not like me,” and narrow stereotyped images of GME students as being on a corporate career track or focused on finance, a theme that strongly emerged from the qualitative research. That perceived corporate focus of GME also likely creates a disconnect with URPs’ high interest in entrepreneurship, according to the report. Nearly 2 in 3 URP survey respondents indicated a desire to start a business during their career as did 70 percent of working professionals surveyed. But this high interest in entrepreneurship may be a factor that limits consideration of GME for many URPs, especially younger respondents, who commonly perceive GME as appropriate for corporate careers.

The report cites other factors that appear to contribute to lower awareness and consideration of GME early in life. For example:

  • Lack of role models for advanced education in general and within business in particular. In terms of parental education, URP survey respondents report lower than U.S. average college completion rates by their parents;
  • The most influential role models for URPs include parents (61% of respondents), teachers (31%), friends, and neighbors (30%), but only 19 percent of URP respondents cited “people in business” as a significant role model;
  • 70 percent of URP students see themselves as pioneering new education and career opportunities in their families and the majority of URPs say their education and career goals are supported by their family. Yet 63 percent also feel family pressure to finish school and begin work, a factor that may get in the way of pursuing graduate education beyond their bachelor’s degree;
  • Alternatives to GME (or any graduate degree) including new or continued employment, especially due to financial debt, time investment, and opportunity costs entailed in earning a graduate degree; and
  • Weighing further specialization in their field of study (e.g., a master’s degree in engineering for those with undergraduate engineering degrees) versus a graduate business education in terms of career impact.

The notable thread running through the survey findings is the increasingly more positive image of graduate management education that evolves over time. Though only 19 percent of college-bound high school seniors can envision GME as part of their education plans, that number grows measurably over time with both further education and work experience. Twenty-seven percent of college freshmen and sophomores and 31 percent of college juniors and seniors are open to considering GME as a graduate education option. This rises to nearly half (46%) of URP working professionals.

As the report notes, with further education and work experience, the self-image of URPs gradually leads to a growing sense that GME is for “someone like me.”

Recommendations for Increasing GME Diversity

The authors contend that, given the increasing role that URP candidates will play in the long-term sustainability of graduate management education, it is vital for business schools to take steps to increase GME’s appeal to URP candidates, especially early in their journey, at the same time ensuring that GME is perceived as appropriate for these prospective students. The report includes a detailed section with action steps for business schools to consider for developing new ways of approaching and connecting with this growing GME market. Their recommendations for improving school marketing of GME, based on the research findings, can be distilled into three categories:

  • Engage early and effectively—Identify prospects and reach out to them while they are still in the undergraduate years. Keep in mind that a key way to engage is through professors or family members and on a personal basis.
  • Target the right prospects—Focus on psychographic segments of students more prone to pursue a business education and do so in a way that links technical and nonmanagement careers with the benefits of a management skill set.
  • Compete effectively— By highlighting the benefits of accredited programs, reflecting the diversity within the schools themselves, and promoting appropriately targeted financial aid programs, GME programs can compete effectively for qualified URP candidates.

To download the full GMAC white paper, as well as the companion research report on URPs, visit

About the Author

Paula Brugemann

Paula Bruggeman is Research Publications Manager, Research Services, at the Graduate Management Admission Council.