M.B.A. program enrollments have been on a decline, while the price of an M.B.A. has continued to rise around the country. Now, two business schools that are at the top of the pecking order for M.B.A.s -- those of Harvard University and the University of Chicago -- are starting to change direction.
Both the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Harvard Business School were listed as part of the group of nine schools that have a total cost for a two-year M.B.A. program clocking in above $200,000. According to the website Poets and Quants, which writes extensively about business schools, Harvard’s total 2017 cost, including tuition and fees, was $218,248, a 2.2 percent increase from the previous year. Chicago Booth’s increase was more than twice that at 4.7 percent to $217,366.
Poets and Quants also found Chicago Booth saw the greatest decline in applications among top programs in 2017-18 at 8.2 percent, while Harvard saw a decline of 4.5 percent.
For other high-priced institutions, tuition will be rising again this year. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania's first-year tuition for 2018-19 was listed at $78,948 but has risen to $79,378. At Stanford University, what was $70,590 a year ago has risen to $71,062. At Northwestern University, $71,544 has jumped to $73,404.
Chad Losee, head of M.B.A. admissions at Harvard Business School, said the program is always trying to address different ways to maintain affordability.
“We constantly think about how we make sure the cost and the financial aid are at a level that they feel really good about the investment,” Losee said.
Losee said affordability is an important issue for potential M.B.A. students who may stop working to pursue the program, something factored into the tuition decisions.
“When we’re, as an admissions team, out talking to prospective students and they're thinking about taking time off from the great job they’re in, thinking about the investment they can make -- the cost of the program and the cost of being out of work is definitely on their mind,” Losee said. “It’s something we’re thinking about, too.”
At Chicago, the freeze in tuition comes with a change in the way students are charged for classes. Stacey Kole, deputy dean for M.B.A. programs at Chicago Booth, said in a prepared statement that tuition will no longer be charged on a per-course basis but instead in six installments.
“Students were making decisions on costs versus the best choices for their academic progress. Under the new structure, full-time M.B.A. students pay tuition in six installments, rather than per course,” Kole said. “The part-time M.B.A. students will continue to pay per course at a rate guaranteed for four years. We have also been fortunate to have generous donors. Our scholarships are increasing, we are ahead of our fund-raising goals and we are doing well financially, so why not share that bounty with our students?”
However, some question whether cost is the most important factor informing the question of declining application. Steven Conn, a professor of history at Miami University in Ohio and author of the upcoming book Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: The Sad History of American Business Schools, from Cornell University Press, said he thinks the type of students who attend places like Chicago and Harvard would have attended regardless.
“The market is fairly well segmented -- if [it is] your ambition … to be one of the masters of the universe, you’re going to try to get yourself into Stanford, Wharton or Harvard, and the price doesn’t matter at all as far as these people go,” Conn said. “The M.B.A. is, beyond any other kind of degree a university offers, the most transactional, and it's regarded as the most monetizable. So most people who go to places like Harvard or Chicago for the M.B.A. see it as an investment that will pay off handsomely once the degree is in hand.”
A recent survey of M.B.A. admissions officials found 31 percent believe the top reason for declining applications was that international students were less likely to come study in America under the current political climate -- 17 percent believed the cost of an M.B.A. was the top reason. A study in 2018 did in fact find that M.B.A. applications were growing in Europe, Canada and Asia.
While it's unclear if the other M.B.A. programs in the group of nine costing more than $200,000 plan to follow Harvard and Chicago’s lead, Losee said Harvard Business School will continue to work toward financial accessibility.
“We’re really focused on making sure Harvard Business School is accessible to people from any kind of background.”