An early sign of the impact of the summer’s violent white nationalist rallies on the future of the University of Virginia, the Darden School of Business announced in a recent email that it is “facing headwinds.”
In an email sent to alumni, Dean Scott Beardsley attributed a drop in first-round applications to the full-time MBA program to the violent rallies on Aug. 11 and 12 that brought torch-bearers to UVa’s Rotunda and ended in the death of a counter-protester in Charlottesville and, indirectly, the deaths of two state troopers in Albemarle County.
“As you might imagine, in the aftermath of the August rally that took place in Charlottesville, we are facing headwinds that we are actively addressing,” Beardsley wrote. “In a spirit of community and transparency, I want to let you know that we have experienced a decline in applications for the first of three rounds to the full-time MBA. We suspect that the alarming events in Charlottesville and the subsequent international press coverage are having an impact.”
Beardsley asked alumni to ramp up their efforts to attract prospective students to the program.
Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, a business school consulting group, said he has seen applicants shy away from Darden in the wake of the rallies.
“It’s really tragic,” said Shinewald, himself a Darden graduate. “Some international, female and minority candidates aren’t applying. They don’t know how beautiful and peaceful it is; they only know it from the news and equate Charlottesville with violence.”
Anecdotally, Shinewald said, the election of Donald Trump had a similar effect on applications to U.S. programs by international candidates, who were afraid of changes to immigration policies. The concern about Darden, however, has been much more specific and significant, he said.
About 2,686 applicants applied to Darden for the 2016 year, according to data from UVa’s Office of Institutional Assessment. Of those, 32 percent received offers.
The Darden application cycle for the 2018 school year will not be fully complete until April. The second round closes Jan. 9. The school did not disclose specific 2017 application numbers.
The decline has surprised Darden officials, but the school is not alone in seeing a shrinking applicant pool.
While most universities aren’t dealing with fallout from violent rallies, MBA programs across the country are shifting focus, and changes may indicate waning popularity of the program.
The University of Iowa, Wake Forest University and Virginia Tech all are scaling back their full-time MBA programs to focus on specialized degrees, while Washington University in St. Louis has closed branch offices. Directors point to employers who are reluctant to pay for executive programs, an increase in online courses and a lack of interest from American students.
For the third year in a row, the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers an entrance exam used by many business schools, has reported fewer applications to U.S. programs. In 2017, two-thirds of American business schools reported a decline in the number of applications for traditional MBA programs.
A drop in Darden’s applications could affect its standing as a top business program, but Shinewald said he expects the numbers to rebound. Darden’s MBA program is currently ranked No. 3 by The Economist magazine.
Plus, there may be a silver lining for future business administrators: People who apply in the second or third rounds may stand a better chance of getting in.
“There’s probably no better time to apply to Darden if you feel like you’re on the cusp of getting in,” he said. “And the value of a top MBA from Darden and its peers, like Duke and Michigan, is still very much there.”
In an effort to increase applications, Darden recently reinstated its Future Year Program, which offers deferred admission to college students as they begin their professional journeys.
Darden also recently hired Dawna Clarke as executive director of admissions and financial aid. A Darden alumna, Clarke previously worked at the business school from 1990 to 2005 and then for consulting groups and for Dartmouth University.
Darden’s first-round deadline, Oct. 5, is among the earliest for graduate and undergraduate programs across the university. Undergraduate early applications close Nov. 1, and a spokesman for the university said applications are so far on pace compared with last year.