Applications to American business schools may have fallen for the fourth year — but some forward-thinking institutions have a potential solution: placing more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in their Masters in Management (MiM) and other masters courses.
Figures from business school entrance exam administrator, the Graduate Management Admission Council show that demand for US business masters degrees plunged by 6.6 percent in 2018 versus 2017.
A bevy of leading institutions have achieved “STEM-designation” for some of their business master’s courses, including University of Rochester’s Simon Business School and the Wisconsin School of Business.
STEM designation is important for US schools because it opens up work visas for international students, who account for about 40 percent of their overall masters programs. The steepest fall in applications was from foreign students, in part because of a perception that they are less welcome in the country.
A STEM curriculum is also alluring for schools because, in an era of rapid technological innovation and artificial intelligence, workers in virtually all jobs and industries need some level of technical proficiency.
Business schools have to prove that more than half of their program content is STEM-focused to secure the designation, something that is appealing to corporate recruiters, who face more difficulty in securing work visas for foreign workers.
International students on STEM-designated programs can apply for an extra 24 months of optional practical training (OPT), which otherwise enables them to work in the US for a year on graduation.
Walter Zinn, associate dean for graduate students and programs at Fisher College of Business, says the school pursued STEM designation for four of its business masters degrees to meet the dynamic needs of prospective students and employers. Fisher’s masters programs in accounting, business logistics engineering, business analytics, and finance are designated.
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The school saw an increase of approximately seven percent in international graduate applications across all programs between 2017-18, but Zinn says it’s difficult to attribute a direct correlation to the STEM designations. “As the number of STEM-designated specialized graduate programs increases, the designation is becoming an expected benefit — not a way to increase applications,” he says.
The McCombs School of Business in Texas has also seen an increase in applications for its MS in Business Analytics course almost every year since its launch in 2013, aside for the class of 2019. The course achieved STEM designation in 2015. International students account for half or more of the course’s current cohorts.
Molly Gully, assistant dean for MSc programs, says the school wanted to provide students with the quantitative skills that are necessary to excel in today’s workforce, and give US employers greater access to international students.
“The visa extension is tremendously attractive to our top-tier international recruiters and has benefited our students during the recruiting and placement process,” she says, adding that it was worth the considerable effort to secure STEM designation.
Some 97 percent of the MS in Business Analytics class of 2018 were employed within six months of graduating and the average salary was $86,175.
It is widely accepted that there is a dearth of STEM talent in the US. For example, the manufacturing sector alone will need to fill about 3.5 million jobs by 2025, according to an Emerson survey. Yet as many as 2 million of those could go unfilled due to the STEM skills gap.
Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business created its MSc in product management, which achieved STEM designation in 2017, to satisfy high employer demand for trained talent.
Greg Coticchia, head of Tepper’s program, says: “This is an area that creates pain for companies, which are waking up today and realizing they are software business analytics and data companies, and need product managers who have the knowledge to span business and technology.”
International students can only apply for the OPT STEM extension once they get a job. So, admissions teams want to admit candidates who are likely to land employment. And with an increase in applications to some STEM-designated courses, the chances of admission at those programs may have reduced slightly.
At Fisher, good scores in entrance tests such as the GMAT or GRE are ways to stand out from the pack, says Zinn. “We also look beyond the numbers at how each student’s unique background can add to the diversity of knowledge,” he says, adding that those with leadership potential are attractive, too.
Despite the challenges, Chioma Isiadinso, co-founder of Expartus, which advises business school applicants, believes the STEM designation is still a “major” attraction to foreign talent.
She says candidates find the rigour of the STEM curricula attractive, adding: “It’s an insurance policy of sorts for applicants who are coming from outside the US to know that the investment they make in [their business education] is something that’s worthwhile, and they will be able to have a long career in the US.”