FEW PEOPLE would take a decision to spend the best part of $150,000 lightly—even in the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic and what the World Bank says will be the deepest global recession in nearly eight decades. So you would expect the current crop of MBA students to have thought carefully before taking up places at business schools late last year.
“Covid has really forced people to think what traditions are and why they’re there,” says Emily Kuo, who is studying a joint MBA and Master of Science in design innovation at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She had cold feet going into her programme, she admits: she wasn’t certain that the new job opportunities she hoped for would materialise. But in the end, she decided to go for it. Indeed, the pandemic may even have given her an impromptu chance for the type of personal development that is such an important part of the qualification. “When I think about the MBA experience, it’s about a lot of calculating trade-offs,” she says. She had to think harder than in normal times about how much she really wanted the qualification, and where she hoped her career would go. By taking the plunge, she believes she has demonstrated an ability to use foresight and anticipation that will stand her in good stead.
Manish Jha, who is due to graduate in the class of 2022 at Kelley Business School at Indiana University, also struggled with the decision to embark on an MBA. One the one hand, he felt he had gone as far as he could in his career in financial management in India without something to propel him to the next level. On the other, he worried that, as employers’ most sought-after skills shift from harder to softer areas, the MBA would end up “losing its sheen”. And then came the pandemic. Was he about to spend a significant amount of money learning how to manage a team and run a business in person, just as the world was doing away with offices? “The moment covid hit, everyone started working from home and the business model changed,” he says. “I’m not too sure the MBA curriculum is ready for this level of change.”
The pandemic’s impact on the economy also created practical obstacles for students planning to cross borders for their MBA. Employers are thinking twice about hiring new workers, even highly skilled ones, and businesses are sponsoring fewer MBA candidates. As an Indian national seeking to study in America, such sponsorship was essential if he were even to be able to enter the country.
With Joe Biden as president, America may become more welcoming for foreign students. But when Mr Jha was applying to programmes, tighter rules brought in by Donald Trump were still in force. Prospective MBAs think four years ahead: one year to consider schools and apply, two years studying and one looking for work. As a result, Mr Trump’s term in office had a long-term depressive effect on the number of foreign students applying to American business schools, says Sangeet Chowfla of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the body that administers the GMAT test.
In the end, Mr Jha took the plunge for reasons that have not changed despite the way the world has: an MBA offers access to an exclusive club, and getting ahead in business still depends on whom you know, not just what you know. But he laments the lack of networking opportunities: classes on Zoom get information across well enough, but “if I have one opportunity to meet you in person, I think that’s more impactful than five Zoom meetings”. Travel restrictions meant that alumni have not come to campus as much as he thought they would. Classes were smaller than he had expected, and there was no opportunity to meet the second-year students on whom new MBA arrivals often depend to show them the ropes. “I’m lacking in that experience of talking to people and meeting people and expanding my horizons,” he says. “One of the reasons I came here is to expand my exposure to the international market. I was born in India, I was working in India, and I had a very fixed mindset and that is not changing because of covid.”
Mr Jha hopes that these aspects of the course will improve during his second year and after he graduates—and still places faith that prestige of a Kellogg MBA will hold its value. Ms Kuo is also conscious of what is lacking. A former partner took the same programme at Kellogg earlier than she did, so she knows what’s different. “It’s not the 100% MBA experience,” she says. Among the losses she feels most keenly are international travel and a pre-sessional bonding activity with fellow incoming MBA students, which make it harder for the group to bond.
Yet she and Mr Jha—along with their peers—are acutely aware of the challenges in running an MBA programme in these times, and are broadly satisfied with what they’re being offered. Business-school students are an adaptable bunch, says Ms Kuo. Spontaneous meetings on campus have been replaced with digital-diary co-ordination. One-on-one connections have, at least in part, made up for the chance ones that no longer happen. She’s taken on extracurricular responsibilities, including engaging in the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion drive. As the old ways of doing things are refreshed, she also sees a chance to structure her MBA experience in ways that reflect the business world she hopes to work in: less old boys’ club and more networking with people of all backgrounds. But she still hopes to meet those people in person—and soon.