MBA tuition bubble update

If you want to see just where the MBA business may soon be heading, read this – just in from Balkinization (HT: Instapundit): The Law School Crunch Is Here–Finances and Quality to Suffer. New numbers released by LSAC show applicants to law school for 2012 are down in every region of the US vs. previous year, with the majority experiencing drops of 15%-20%. Enrollment is also dropping – 2012 may see the lowest enrollments since the 1990s (from 52,000 enrolled in accredited programs two years ago to a possible 43,000 this year). With such a precipitous enrollment drop comes low quality students and severe financial difficulties. The bad news is that even at these low numbers, the number of graduates far outstrips the number of available jobs. Tamanaha estimates the equilibrium number of first year enrollments to be around 35,000. The good news is hard to find.

The law school industry appears to lead its b-school counterpart by a few years. Many of the trends affecting law schools – the most salient being the discouraging cost/benefit ratio facing prospective students – are also affecting graduate business schools. The lag between the two may be due to the fact that, for law schools, the immediate value of a law degree is much more transparent. One cannot be a lawyer without a law degree and the only purpose in having a law degree is to become a lawyer. When the bottom falls out of the market for lawyers, one would expect it to fall out of the market for law education in short order. Since MBAs are, ostensibly, useful in any business endeavor, the connection between the education and practitioner markets is less obvious.

That said, business schools face other challenges. For example, law schools still provide an important certification function and, as such, have presumably retained a requisite level of educational content. This maintains their position as a necessary link in the professional chain. Business school educational content, on the other hand, has been on a downward glide path ever since the advent of Business Week surveys in the late 80s (and the Northwestern response innovation to treat students as “customers”). With no objective certification requirement, b-schools have been free to dumb down the education, admit large numbers of questionably-qualified-but-able-to-write-a-check students, and increase activities that have little to do with learning (e.g., social networking). Simultaneously, we see the stirrings of competition from untraditional  sources, such as high quality schools in Europe, China and India (previously a growth segment of the domestic MBA education market), free online courses from top schools such as MIT and Stanford, and alternative forms of education (such as E[enstitute]‘s apprenticeship approach). These differences suggest that the bottom, when we hit it, may be worse than that for law schools.

During a discussion of these developments the other day, a young colleague objected to (what he interpreted as) my Cassandra-like apocalypticism on this topic. The objection was misplaced. I do believe the market for MBAs is going to get a lot tougher in the near- to mid-term – perhaps catastrophically so for programs outside the first tier. In the long-term, however, the turbulence is going to force our institutions … wait, I mean us, the faculties … to revise our business and educational models to compete effectively. The reason to start thinking about the bad-news scenarios now is to prepare. So, when the crunch comes, clear-thinking colleagues can step up to implement successful responses. In my judgment, the market for business education is going to become much more fragmented and diversified. This strikes me as a good thing, with one  winning strategy being to take the research-education link and its attending certification role seriously once again. And, that, in my opinion, would be a wonderful development.


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8 Comments on “MBA tuition bubble update”

  1. rmakadok says:

    Fear not!
    Our bailout is coming…
    just as soon as we unionize.

    It works great for UAW and NEA and AFT and SEIU, so why not for us?

    • @mdryall says:

      Rich, The “bailout” has been in operation for decades — in the form of government subsidized student loans. This is one of the factors contributing to unabated tuition inflation and, given the grim fiscal scenario we presently face, another reason to believe these levels are not sustainable. (A serious answer to your humorous comment.)

  2. amerkhan says:

    You said: “This strikes me as a good thing, with one winning strategy being to take the research-education link and its attending certification role seriously once again. And, that, in my opinion, would be a wonderful development.”

    Could you please explain the above.

    I am also concerned about issues with business education. Although here in my Asian context, the market situation is different, with increasing student numbers particularly for ‘professional’ oriented programmes (i.e. Accounting/Finance majors), taught by ‘branch campuses’ of Western (low tier) universities!

    cheers

    Amer Khan
    Lecturer, School of Business and Design, Swinburne University of Technology
    Sarawak, Malaysia

  3. [...] on investment’ and the legitimacy of MBA are being increasingly questioned (see this blogpost). There are other models springing up to provide an ‘apprenticeship’ style of [...]

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