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GMAC’s 2016 Application Trends Survey: Specialized Degrees, European MBAs on the Rise

According to GMAC’s 2016 Application Trends Survey, specialized graduate businesses programs are gaining ground on MBAs in the United States although European MBA programs are still growing in popularity.

The results suggest that in a competitive job market, many business school hopefuls are looking to specialized degrees, highly-ranked MBAs and programs that can be completed quickly to get an edge.

While the number of applications received by top U.S. business schools keeps going up, 54 percent of U.S. B-schools overall saw no increase in applications from 2015 to 2016. This trend was especially pronounced in smaller programs, only 43 percent of which had rising demand.

By contrast, a full 65 percent of the European business schools surveyed reported greater application volume in 2016.

GMAC's 2016 Application Trends Survey: Specialized Degrees

These mixed results partly come down to fluctuating interest in MBA programs. Worldwide, 43 percent of two-year MBAs received more applications this year. Once again, there was a stark divide between large schools and small schools, which reported growth rates of 57 and 33 percent respectively.

One-year MBA programs fared slightly better, with 57 percent seeing a rise in applications. European one-year MBAs were especially popular, with 74 percent getting more applications in 2016. For U.S. one-year MBAs, that number was 43 percent.

If MBA programs are seeing more measured growth this year, it’s partly because applicants are skipping over smaller programs, but also because specialized alternatives like the Master in Management (MiM) and Master in Finance (MiF) are being seen as more attractive.

From 2015 to 2016, 51 percent of MiM programs reported rising application volumes, including 58 percent of European MiMs and 50 percent of U.S. MiMs. Meanwhile, MiF programs saw robust growth in both the U.S. (55 percent) and Europe (65 percent).

The fastest-growing degree of all, however, was the newer Master of Data Analytics. With more and more students learning about this degree, 94 percent of the programs surveyed reported rising demand.

Some of the factors driving the rise of specialized degree programs may be the same ones behind the shift from two-year toward one-year MBAs. Like the latter, specialized degrees often take one year – and therefore less time and money – to complete.

But part of the drop in MBA applicants might also have to do with people considering options outside of a traditional classroom education. Fifty-seven percent of online MBAs saw a rise in the number of applications received.

Together, the rise in online MBA applicants and the rapid growth in Master of Data Analytics applicants shows that technology is reshaping the range of possibilities for enrolling in business school.

At the same time, the increased interest in specialized degree programs and larger MBAs compared with a dip in MBA applications overall shows that more and more, applicants are taking note of the different B-school options they have and choosing selectively.