Saïd students at an Oxford Union debate © Tom Pilston
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Big or small? Is there an ideal figure for teaching numbers on an MBA? A large intake might indicate a school’s pulling power, provide greater networking opportunities and draw employers to recruitment events. At the same time, breaking down a big group into smaller classes can foster intimacy and intensity of experience.

One institution that has succeeded on both counts is Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business in New Hampshire. It is notable among the elite of MBA providers in the US for two reasons. First, it was one of only two of the “magnificent seven” leading US business schools to see an increase in applications in 2018, when most institutions in the country were hit by flat or declining demand. Second, the school distinguishes itself from its peers by actively managing its admissions to ensure small MBA study classes of 12 people.

These two achievements are not unrelated, says Matthew Slaughter, Tuck’s dean. “The human scale facilitates better learning in the MBA class because it fosters a greater development of trust and collaboration,” he says, adding that this intimacy encourages students to be bolder in sharing thoughts they might otherwise keep to themselves and to challenge one another more rigorously.

Smaller class sizes have become a reality for many business schools in recent years, though often not out of choice. Declining MBA application numbers in the US have forced schools to accept fewer students or compromise the quality of their intake.

In extreme cases, this has led to a spiral of decline. The University of Bradford in the north of England closed its full-time MBA in 2013 after falling demand meant the intake dwindled from more than 100 students a year to the low double digits. The school now operates a mixture of executive MBA programmes and a part-time course funded by the apprenticeship levy all UK employers with an annual wage bill of £3m or more must pay into.

Kathy Harvey © Fisher Studios

At any one time, the school will run MBA class sizes of between 15 and 25, which Zahir Irani, dean of the school of management, law and social sciences, says is about right for such a course. “Any less than 12 is definitely too small,” Prof Irani says. “Too many people and individuals will struggle to get air time in class to express their views.”

Schools like Tuck are making a virtue of small MBA class sizes but still with a large overall intake of students each year. Tuck’s small study groups are part of an annual intake of about 280 full-time MBA students — a figure necessary to attract the best employers of graduate talent, according to Prof Slaughter. “We cannot be too large [so that we] compromise the values of our MBA education,” he says. “But we cannot be too small [so that we] lack the presence for companies we want to be part of our ecosystem.”

That is comparable to the programmes at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the UK. The school maintains MBA classes of about 80 students but an annual cohort of 320, according to Kathy Harvey, associate dean for MBA and executive degrees. The school also varies the way the students interact, from groups of six for in-depth discussions to whole-class case discussions where a broader range of views are expressed. “Matching the group size to the task enhances the students’ experience,” Harvey says.

In contrast to the Tuck approach, an intake of MBA students might be taught in one large class, with hundreds packed into a lecture theatre at once. In this context, class size can be an emblem of elite status, but it conveys different meanings at different business schools, says Stacy Blackman, an admissions consultant.

“For Stanford, a small class has led to greater exclusivity and a more competitive programme in terms of admissions,” says the founder of MBA admissions agency Stacy Blackman Consulting. “For Harvard Business School, filling a big class is proof of the great demand.”

More than elite status, class size comes to symbolise a school’s particular culture, Blackman adds. “For schools like HBS or Wharton, it’s a big programme that you can almost get lost in, which is appealing to some,” she says. “Students like the fact that anywhere you go after graduation, you can bump into a fellow alumnus — the alumni network is vast and powerful.”

Even if demand for full-time MBA courses continues to fall in the US, the higher-ranked schools have more than enough applicants, so they will not need to decrease class size, says Blackman. “They certainly may jiggle around their sizes as they figure out the right numbers and economics for all of the various programmes they run, but it won’t be because they cannot fill the class,” she says.

Judith Silverman Hodara was senior associate director of admissions at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for nine years, until 2009, when its MBA class sizes were inching over 800, close to the numbers at Harvard Business School. “The schools that maintain these sizes are able to do so because of applicant demand, but also because they have the resources to support this number of students,” she says. She echoes Blackman’s point that students benefit from a large alumni network and the attraction for employers of a large graduate population.

Silverman Hodara is now a US director of Fortuna Admissions, which advises applicants worldwide. There is no “sweet spot”, she says, as far as her clients are concerned, just differing personal requirements. “I am guessing that, on balance, if a student is admitted to one of these larger programmes, they may realise the size brings with it trade-offs, good and bad, in terms of access.”

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