Is the MBA experiencing a resurgence in popularity?

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After several years of decline, Penn State’s MBA program saw a significant bump in the number of applicants this year. At the beginning of May, the school had received 534 applications for the 2012-13 school year, according to Stacey Dorang Peeler, director of admissions for Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

The college expects a couple more applications to trickle in and then top out at about 540, Peeler tells eFinancialCareers.

“This will put us at about 14 percent over last year,” she says. “At this point, we are now above where we were in 2007 and above where we were last year.”

Top tier programs see an uptick in applications

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, some top-tier programs have seen an uptick in applications this year.

Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management saw a 16 percent jump in two-year MBA applications. Simmons School of Management in Boston recorded a 23 percent hike in applications. And at Stanford Graduate School of Business, applications rose by a modest 1.5 percent.

Three-year decline in MBA interest

It’s good news for a degree that’s seen a sharp decline in interest in the last three years. From 2005-06 to 2008-09, applications to MBA programs rose 50 percent, according to Sarah Ham, spokeswoman for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a Tampa-based agency that accredits business schools. Ham says the data is based on a survey of 428 schools.

According to the data, the number of applicants rose from 61,676 to 96,962 in a three-year span. In 2009-10, the number jumped significantly, rocketing from 96,962 to 107,640. The following year, in 2010-11, the number fell to approximately 92,000.

Many colleges tend to experience an upswing in enrollment when the economy goes south. But when the economy is particularly bad, it could have the opposite effect on enrollment.

“People who have jobs might be reluctant to leave them,” Peeler says. “As we see signs of recovery, it is helping with the increase in applicants.”

She added that the school’s alumni have also been active in steering prospective students to Smeal.

Not all schools seeing an increase

But overall the picture remains mixed, as several schools have reported either flat or lower application numbers. According to the Journal, Harvard Business School, MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business reported declines.

And several schools contacted by eFinancialCareers, such as Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Emory and the University of California at Berkley, either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

Peeler says many schools remain cautiously optimistic as the still fragile economy struggles to claw its way out of a recession.

“Overall, GMAT test takers are down in the U.S.,” says Peeler. “One thing we are seeing is financial aid being a huge factor in whether a candidate is going to choose a program. I think it’s too early to tell. Everyone right now is taking a cautious view not knowing what’s going to happen with the economy. It’s kind of a 'keep your fingers crossed' thing at this time.”

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