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With demand for MBA places falling, fees rising, nationalism resurgent, the appetite for skills changing and technology proving ever more disruptive for learning and careers, it may be time for a strategic rethink by business schools. It is certainly time for greater reflection and scrutiny by prospective students.

In the US, the declining trend in applications over the past five years continues, causing some schools to restructure and close courses. With high costs of study and a fickle job market, a survey by education research company CarringtonCrisp suggests only 38 per cent of prospective MBAs believe they will be able to repay their fees in full.

As US president Donald Trump shuns immigration and discourages international students, new opportunities are opening up elsewhere. Business schools in Canada, Europe and emerging markets led by China are benefiting — often providing shorter MBAs with a richer range of specialisations and different networks of alumni on tap.

At its best, the MBA provides a passport to career advancement and salary rises. It can also be a recruitment tool for employers looking for a quality filter. At the top end of the market, a dozen resilient institutions say the costs of their degrees now exceed $200,000 — before the sacrifice of income while studying.

Responsible Business Education

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At a time when campuses are under pressure to go green, MBA students want jobs with real social purpose. Read our special report.

To stay ahead, schools have to adapt to new demands from students and businesses, with greater need for hard skills such as big data analysis and soft skills including leadership and entrepreneurship. As traditional capitalism is questioned, there is growing appetite for social impact, sustainability and responsible business skills.

Many studies — including from business school academics — highlight the importance of diversity in their recruitment, to generate better ideas and more accurately reflect society and customers. More needs to be done with financial aid and support to improve the balance of gender, ethnicity and first-generation students in higher education. It is also important to consider those with physical disabilities or mental health conditions, which are often stigmatised and can sit awkwardly with a classic gung-ho culture.

Some of these nuances are captured in the FT’s latest MBA ranking of leading business schools around the world. The US continues to dominate, as home to 16 of the top 30, but there is also strong representation from the best European and Asian institutions. 

Harvard has regained its top spot overall, with graduates judging it the place they would most likely recruit others from. Wharton, in second place, has the leading record for research, while Stanford offers the highest post-graduation salaries and career progress.

These different factors underline that there is no single criterion on which future students should choose a school. Duration, specialisations, cost, location, curriculum, the backgrounds of other students and how faculty expertise matches with aspirations should all be taken into account.

As one ethnographic study cautions, international study tours are often superficial. A deep commitment to a particular region may be better met by a longer placement or a degree in a high-quality local school. “Blended” online learning can be easier to balance with other commitments, but there is a trade-off when developing vital personal contacts and networks.

Exploratory conversations with admissions officers are important, as well as gathering information on and tracking down current and former students ­— something technology is helping to enable. Alumni are often delighted to be contacted by prospective and current MBAs — especially if there is follow-up on any recommendations. These discussions can lead to useful advice, mentorship, placements, projects and even employment.

Course recruiters recommend that applicants prepare well in advance for the GMAT business school entry test and allow time to retake it if required. Prospective students should prepare CVs that stress soft skills, successes and how adversity has been overcome; draft an essay that is authentic and outlines career goals; come to interviews with questions that show evidence of research and give responses that indicate self-awareness.

For those preparing applications, studying or teaching on MBA courses, or simply interested in business, this report also offers broader insights: how Google is curbing staff debate after they used internal meetings and collaboration tools to question its policies; how different approaches are required to successfully integrate acquisitions; and how those with negatively perceived characteristics such as foreign accents can turn them to their advantage.

Meanwhile, if students, employers and business schools all need to rethink the MBA, the FT is also reflecting on the issue: we welcome feedback from all three groups and others as we continue our deliberations about how to assess courses, provide useful advice and help prepare graduates for the demands of the coming decades. 

Comments and suggestions are invited at mba@ft.com

Andrew Jack is the FT’s global learning editor

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