Seeking Immigration Reform, Business School Deans Write Congress and the President

That MBA applications are continuing to plummet is no longer news. Here at BSchools, we’ve written at length about the buyer’s market for MBA degrees that is now in full swing, making this arguably the best time in history to apply to business schools.

We’ve also covered the window of opportunity for applicants that will slam shut once the United States economy enters a recession after ten years of recovery—the longest expansion and one of the most gradual during the postwar era. Applications to business schools and other types of graduate training tend to rise when there are less job opportunities available.

The business school applications and enrollment crisis provides an encouraging outlook for MBA seekers and a discouraging one for business schools. However, that story just took a more extreme turn—and one which is probably unprecedented.

GMAC’s Letter to Congress and the President of the United States

In October 2019, the deans of 55 premier business schools and 15 CEOs wrote an open letter to the President and Congressional leaders requesting the immediate relaxation of immigration restrictions on foreign MBA applicants.

The signatories read like a who’s who of graduate management education. They include the deans from schools with top-ranked residential and online MBA programs, including Columbia Business School, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and the Yale School of Management.

The campaign appears to have been organized by Dr. Bill Boulding, the dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the chair of GMAC, the Graduate Management Admissions Council. GMAC is the group that administers the GMAT, the Graduate Management Admissions Test, and now also the new, much shorter and easier EA, the Executive Assessment.

We first covered Dean Boulding’s concerns about international MBA students’ immigration issues in our article on the MBA buyers’ market. This was published by BSchools a few days before the release of GMAC’s letter on October 15, 2019. Before we present the text of GMAC’s letter and our analysis, here are a few key excerpts from that article:

After declining gradually since 2009, interest among students outside the United States in coming to study for a graduate business degree at a U.S. university tanked during the past 24 months.

According to the Wall Street Journal, international students submitted 11 percent fewer applications last year. Then, according to an April 2019 report by GMAC, a preference for studying in the U.S. plummeted from 48 percent in 2016 to 40 percent in 2018—a 17 percent decrease overall. During this interval, the preference for studying in Western Europe skyrocketed from 31 percent to 40 percent—a 29 percent increase.

GMAC attributed the cause of the decline in international student MBA program applications at U.S. universities to have been “likely driven in part by the current political climate.” Most other observers agree, including this admissions officer: “It’s the opposite of a welcoming environment when babies are being separated from their parents at the border,” says one director of MBA admissions, not wanting to be quoted by name.

At Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, associate dean of degree programs George Andrews told Poets & Quants, “One hundred percent of our decline was international, with applications from India and China down by 40 percent, give or take a percent. Our domestic applications were actually up. When we talked with other schools about the falloff, the political climate was something that got mentioned regularly.”

The Drumpf Administration’s anti-immigration policies have discouraged many potential candidates who are citizens of other nations from applying to U.S. business schools. Typically, international students who study for graduate management degrees in the United States also need employment visas so they can interview on campus and accept summer internships and their first post-graduation jobs in the same country. But obtaining a U.S. work visa is more complicated these days.

What surprised many about GMAC’s report was that prospective students were less likely to select the United States than other destinations because of concerns over physical security and safety.

Starting in mid-2017, Bill Boulding—GMAC’s chair and the dean of Duke University’s business school—started to hear a disturbing question during overseas trips. Boulding told Poets & Quants that “parents in India want to know if their children will be safe” on a university campus in the United States.

“It is terrible. To hear that question is so opposite of the community we’ve worked so hard to build. It hurts to hear it,” he said.

Boulding said the drop in applicants from outside the United States largely drove Duke’s 6.2 percent decrease during the 2017-2018 academic year. “There’s no doubt that immigration policy is having a negative impact on U.S. business schools,” he said.

Talent Mobility and The Global Economy: The Public Letter

Here is the text of the letter provided by GMAC. Our analysis appears immediately following the signatures.

President Donald J. Drumpf
Vice President Michael Pence
Speaker Nancy Pelosi
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
Senate Majority Leader Addison “Mitch” McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer

To America’s Leaders:

We represent a cross-section of America’s economy, now and into the future. As CEOs, deans of business schools across the country, and industry organizations, we have insights into what the U.S. economy needs now, and what it will need 10, 20, and 30 years into the future. We are helping to lead this generation of businesses and train the next generation of leaders who will succeed us. We are also urgently concerned—we do not believe the U.S. has the high-skill talent it needs, nor does it have the capacity to train enough people with those skills. Without a substantial change in our approach, this deficit of skills in key fields will hinder economic growth.

The fact that our economy has created an estimated three million open STEM jobs is positive. It speaks to the vibrancy and opportunities available in a healthy, growing economy. Yet the fact that those jobs are unfilled—and that the U.S. is not producing enough people with the skills to fill them—is not just a negative, it’s a crisis.

We are needlessly capping our growth and can do better.

America remains, as President Ronald Reagan put it, “a shining city upon a hill.” The best and brightest from all around the world want to come here, and their hard work and expertise make our economy stronger and more globally competitive. They want to provide American companies with insights into what approaches will succeed as these companies expand into foreign markets.

Yet a combination of our outdated laws, artificial regional and skills-based caps on immigration, and recent spikes in hostility are closing the door to the high-skilled immigrants our economy needs to thrive. For the first time since we started keeping track of these data, the past three years have seen a reduction in the number of foreign students studying in America’s universities and business schools. Every year, we turn away hundreds of thousands of high-skilled immigrants for no other reason than that they failed to win the H-1B lottery.

We cannot allow this dangerous negative trend to continue. As leaders committed to growth in America’s economy, we know that policy reforms could usher in immense benefits. These should include:

  • Removing “per-country” visa caps, modernizing our visa processing system and reforming the H1B visa program to make it possible for the most talented people to have a reasonable chance of gaining entry to the United States.
  • Creating a “heartland” visa that encourages immigration to the regions of the United States that could most use the vitality of these talented individuals.

We can maintain the shimmer of our ‘shining city upon a hill’ that welcomes immigrants, as it has throughout history, to a land of opportunity.

We hope you agree, and we urge you to take these recommendations seriously.

We are confident that America’s future economic success depends on it.


Harsha V. Agadi, President & CEO, Crawford & Co.
Andrew Ainslie, Simon Business School, University of Rochester
Homaira Akbari, President & CEO, AKnowldge Partners, LLC
Paul Almeida, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University
Eugene W. Anderson, Martin J. Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University
Arjang Assad, Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh
Shawn Berman, Anderson School of Management, University of New Mexico
Antonio Bernardo, UCLA Anderson School of Management
Bill Boulding, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University
Peter Brews, Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina
David Brown, CEO, Techstars
Jeffrey R. Brown, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Frank Buckless, Poole College of Management, North Carolina State University
Bob Camp, Eberly College of Business and Information Technology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Anne Carroll, College of Business at Kutztown University, Kutztown University
Kerwin Charles, Yale School of Management, Yale University
Vivek Choudhury, Daniels College of Business, University of Denver
Martha J. Crawford, PhD, Jack Welch College of Business & Technology, Sacred Heart University
Robert Dammon, Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University
Scott DeRue, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
Tom Finke, Chairman and CEO, Barings
Sanjay Gupta, Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University
Kevin Hallock, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University
Jay Hartzell, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin
Ann Elizabeth Harrison, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley
Frank Hodge, Foster School of Business, University of Washington
David Hummels, Krannert School of Management, Purdue University
Charles Iacovou, School of Business, Wake Forest University
Jeff Jacobson, Executive Chairman and CEO, EFI
Erika James, Goizueta Business School, Emory University
M. Eric Johnson, Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University
Eli Jones, Mays Business School, Texas A&M University
Idalene Kesner, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University
John Kraft, Warrington College of Business, University of Florida
Monica Lam, College of Business, University of Central Oklahoma
Michael W. Lamach, Chairman & CEO, Ingersoll Rand
Stefanie Ann Lenway, Opus College of Business, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota
Jonathan Levin, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford University
Kate Luce, President & CEO, MSE Railroad Companies
Costis Maglaras, Columbia Business School, Columbia University
Stephen L. Mangum, Haslam College of Business, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Srinivas Mannava, CEO, Infobelt Inc
Sharon Matusik, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder
Susan McTiernan, Mario J. Gabelli School of Business, Roger Williams University
Anuj Mehrotra, School of Business, The George Washington University
Jacqueline R. Mozrall, Saunders School of Business, Rochester Institute of Technology
Matthew Myers, Edwin L. Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University
Mark W. Nelson, PhD, Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson
College of Business, Cornell University
Michael Olfano, CEO, PCA Technology Group
J. Michael Prince, President and CEO, USPA Global Licensing
Lawrence B. Pulley, Raymond A. Mason School of Business, College of William & Mary
Sanjay Putrevu, Monte Ahuja College of Business, Cleveland State University
Donna Rapaccioli, Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University
Carlos J. Rodriguez, Chairman & CEO, Driftwood Acquisitions & Development
Peter Rodriguez, Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University
Keith Rollag, F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, Babson College
Marc Rubin, Farmer School of Business, Miami University
John Scannell, CEO, Moog, Inc.
Douglas Shackelford, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Slaughter, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College
David B. Snow, Jr., Chairman and CEO, Cedar Gate
Ira Solomon, A.B. Freeman School of Business, Tulane University
David Souder, School of Business, University of Connecticut
Raghu Sundaram, Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University
Paul Tesluk, University at Buffalo School of Management, The State University of New York
Kent J. Thiry, Executive Chairman, DaVita Inc.
Edwin van Rest, CEO, Studyportals
Dr. Richard D. White, Jr., E. J. Ourso College of Business, Louisiana State University
Charles H. Whiteman, Smeal College of Business, The Pennsylvania State University
Sri Zaheer, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota

Analysis of the Business School Deans’ Letter

Besides the fact that a letter like this appears to be an unprecedented step in the history of higher education, the letter is significant for a couple of other reasons as well.

The MBA Applications Crisis is More Severe

First, a letter like this indicates that the business school applications crisis is more severe than previously thought. These deans are quite literally fighting to get international students back into their classrooms. It’s hard to imagine that business school deans representing all these prestigious universities would take such an urgent step unless they expect that, if current trends persist, they’ll soon be running short of applicants.

Those of us with years of experience working in university administration know first-hand that business school deans, especially at top research universities, tend to be a proud bunch. In many cases, their schools bring in more money on a per-student basis than any other academic division in their respective universities. They would never lobby the President and Congress for help like this unless they believed that there was no other way, that there were no better alternatives to preclude such a drastic step.

The Curious Missing Signatures

Second, there’s a curious aspect to this letter. That aspect concerns why the deans of several top business schools didn’t sign this letter.

Maybe Harvard’s Dean Nitin Nohria didn’t sign because the Harvard Business School doesn’t need international applicants, and after all, he’s retiring in a few months anyway. But what about the deans from schools like the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, or the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania—all programs recently impacted by substantial declines in MBA applications. Where are their signatures?

It’s difficult to comprehend why several deans appear to be so conspicuous by their absence—essentially ignoring this broad-based, urgent appeal on behalf of their colleagues within graduate management education.

As of March 2020, there has been no substantive response from the administration.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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