‘If you’re not Harvard, you’re f—ed’: Business schools concerned about attracting MBA students are scrambling to improve their online courses during COVID-19

  • Around the world, business schools are scrambling to improve their online courses as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on an already struggling sector. 
  • Last year, the top 10 business schools in the US reported a 7% decline in applications, and 30% of this year’s Harvard Business School candidates have opted to defer their studies until 2021. 
  • One senior academic told Business Insider many schools were struggling to convince students to commit to online learning, adding: “If you’re not Harvard Business School, you’re f—ed.” 
  • Executive education startup Jolt said it had held talks with a number of leading business schools about helping to improve their online offerings. 

Business schools around the world are scrambling to improve their online offerings amid fears the COVID-19 pandemic will leave them struggling to attract students.  

The executive education sphere was facing an crisis before the pandemic, with the US’s top 10 business schools reporting a 7% decline in applications year-on-year in 2019. And while applications have historically risen in times of uncertainty, with students using education to ride out difficult economic circumstances, COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing requirements could make 2020 a tough year. 

Education providers of all stripes have switched to online learning, and it remains unclear whether institutions will be able to convince students their courses will prove just as enriching when taken from home. 

Most business schools have yet to publish stats for the coming fall semester intake, but earlier this year Harvard Business School revealed around 30% of students accepted onto its MBA programme had chosen to defer their studies until the following year. 

Applications to the world’s oldest business school ESCP, which has campuses in six major cities across Europe, have risen, according to director of executive education Prof Peter Stephenson-Wright — but prospective students remain hesitant to follow through on their commitment.

“If anything, the number of applicants is up – and the quality of those applications is incredibly high,” he told Business Insider. “But people are quite uncertain about making the final commitment, and some are asking what options they have in terms of deferring enrolment.” 

Many students are worried they won’t get full value from a remote degree. A November analysis by Poets&Quants, a forum and community group targeting business school students, showed the total price tag of an MBA, including room and board and other fees, had ballooned to more than $200,000 at a dozen institutions.

“Many [business] schools have relied on their reputation to keep a steady flow of students coming in,” the group added. “But a huge part of exec education is the networking opportunities – I don’t think people are willing to pay $200,000 for a degree over Zoom.” 

One senior lecturer at a well-known US business school, who spoke to Business Insider on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid enflaming tensions with colleagues, said the “unreasonable costs” of traditional MBA programmes could put many students off applying to all but the most prestigious institutions. “If you’re not Harvard Business School, you’re f—ed,” they said.

Competition was already on the rise before the pandemic broke out, with e-learning companies such as Jolt and Hyper Island offering relatively affordable forms of executive education. 

Roei Deutsch, Jolt cofounder and CEO, told Business Insider his firm had held talks with a number of leading business schools across the globe about helping them revamp their online offering. 

“There are different models that fit different institutions and challenges,” Deutsch said, adding that discussions had included operating an entire “business school as a service” for one university, and white-labelling its tech for another. 

Deutsch said the best-known institutions still offered students access to an “elitist club.”

“That hasn’t changed much so they are the most resilient to this crisis. But other schools have recognized that they’ll have to completely disrupt themselves to survive.

“We’ll see some of them flourish and jump up the ranks through inovation, or shut down and lose their spot.” 

SEE ALSO: Before COVID-19, online learning was dying out — but now profits at companies like Udacity are soaring. We spoke to experts about how the pandemic has changed the sector’s future.

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