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How the best MBA programs strive to increase diversity in the class

Diversity in business schools

It is not just women applicants, women students, and women MBAs who are challenging the boys’ club in management education and in the corporate sector. Business schools are also strongly behind them. So also business houses.

Not just women, b-schools are also supportive of other underrepresented groups and communities in pursuit of diversity on the campus. For schools, diversity—by gender, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, socioeconomics, sexuality, age, and educational and industrial background—is no longer just a buzz word but an essential characteristic of an environment where better leaders are born.

What is diversity? The term brings to mind “visible diversity”—aspects that are external and cannot be changed, such as gender and race. But diversity can be invisible, too—diversity of work experience, marital status, educational background, parental status, and income, says a paper on diversity by the University of Michigan. A combination of various visible and invisible attributes makes up an individual, who would be different from any other individual. “When we recognize, value, and embrace diversity, we are recognizing, valuing, and embracing the uniqueness of each individual,” says the paper.

In 2015, Business Insider, along with, published a ranking of business schools according to their campus diversity. INSEAD, France, was on the top of the list, followed by IE University and ESADE, both in Spain. Ranks four to nine were bagged by US schools: California State University, Los Angeles (4); Yale, CT (5); Perdue, IN (6); Georgia State University, Atlanta (7); Stanford, CA (8); Columbus State University, OH (9); and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HK).

Gender diversity

Gender diversity is usually the top priority on campuses. Read how how business schools are luring female applicants. The 2017 GMAC (Graduate Management Admission Council) Application Trends Survey reports that 64 percent of full-time two-year MBA programs have recorded an increase in the number of women applicants in 2017 compared with 2016. Overall, women represented 42% applications to business education. In full-time MBA programs, the share was up from 2016’s 37% to 39% in 2017.

In 2021 GMAC Application Trends Survey, 3 in 5 (60%) full-time MBA programs reported increase in women applicants compared to 2 in 5 (43%) male applicants.

Business schools have teamed up with various organizations in their crusade for improved diversity. The Forté Foundation supports women in MBA programs and partners with 46 schools worldwide. Forté’s MBALaunch helps women applicants prepare for b-school admissions; its Rising Stars supports women students from various academic backgrounds.

In late 2015, Forté reported that 36 member schools had achieved 36.2 percent enrolment of women (fall, 2015), up from 32.3 percent in 2011. A dozen US schools have achieved 40 percent women’s enrollment. Fifty-fifty is the goal for Elissa Sangster, Executive Director, Forté Foundation.

Even more promising are recent numbers from Forté research. 2021 women’s enrollment in MBA rose to 41%, highest till date, post the pandemic lull.

Elissa-Sangster-Forté-FoundationMBA Crystal Ball reached out to Elissa Sangster, Executive Director, Forté Foundation, to find out more about the program.

“College is the best time to join Forté,” says Elissa. “It still gives young women time to plan and consider their career path and next steps around pursuing an MBA.”

“After graduating, Fellows have many opportunities to be involved in Forté’s work. They can be mentors or speakers or panelists at one of more than 50 events we host each year for college and early career women. They can network with other Forté Fellows at local events we host—summer meet-ups and other Fellow gatherings. They can write articles and blog posts for the Forté website to inspire others.”

Forté Foundation offers career services—job postings and a resume database—for when Forté fellows are ready for their next career move.

Elissa has some advice for business schools who are struggling to increase their female intake.

“Listen to women who are enrolled in your program or graduates of your program. What did they want out of their MBA experience? Was it achieved? How did the school help them reach their goals? Take this information and craft an approach to marketing and promoting your program to women.”

“Read the research,” suggests Elissa. “GMAC has an arsenal of data that can be used to customize your outreach to women. How to find them, what types of career paths interest them most, their expectations, and their concerns (financing the MBA, quitting their current job, finding employment, taking the GMAT, etc.)

“Make a commitment to evaluate your school, your campus, and your program,” adds Elissa. “Is it friendly to women? Are their opportunities for them to lead, to succeed in the classroom, to find great employment? What do you do to support them throughout their studies?”

Kellogg is one of the schools that partner with Forté. Sally Blount, who was appointed Dean in 2010, the first female dean of a top-rated b-school in the US, speaks about a Kellogg culture that is “courageous, driven, and supportive” of women students. This is obvious: Kellogg’s class of 2024 comprises 48 percent women.

At Kellogg, prospective women applicants attend an event where they interact with the school’s Women’s Business Association members and experience the campus. Kellogg’s support continues even after students get jobs: the Kellogg Center for Executive Women gives them opportunity to develop mentors.

The Chicago Booth School of Business (40 percent women in its class of 2024) is known to attract women students by broadening the types of MBA degrees to include technology, marketing, analytics, and consulting. Female students benefit from support from student groups, such as the Chicago Women in Business, which organize networking events, mentoring sessions, and get-togethers.

The Chicago Women in Business Alumnae Network participates in admissions events that give women applicants to Booth an idea about life on campus from a women’s perspective. Women students’ queries are addressed by the three-decade-old University of Chicago Women’s Business Group, run by volunteer alumnae.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business has maintained women’s enrollment at 40 percent for a few years now. The class of 2024 comprises 50 percent women. Women students have managed to rope in rather unlikely supporters for their endeavor to increase gender sensitivity, by creating the “22s,” a gathering of male students interested in working on gender equality in business.

At Dartmouth’s Tuck, too, the class of 2023 has 45 percent women. Tuck’s DivCo (Diversity Conference) reassures student applicants that the school is sensitive to diverse personalities.

Old strategies still work for schools with hoary traditions. One strategy that HBS and Stanford started using long ago is to encourage women MBA aspirants to apply at a younger age and not go by conventional wisdom to wait till they are 29 or 30 and apply after acquiring work experience, as this is usually the time that they want to start a family.

There are also schools that boast of classrooms where women students outnumber men. Rutgers Business School, Newark and New Brunswick, is one. Among the full-time MBA students earning their degrees in 2016, 51 percent are women, says Lei Lei, Dean.

Women students and women graduates receive special mentoring at Rutgers, which invites top women executives to speak to students. Listening to them inspires women students and graduates, particularly, and presents them with role models.

According to data from the 2014-15 school year, 63.4 percent of full-time students in the UC-Berkeley (Haas), 54.8 percent of the University of Tulsa (Collins), and 52.9 percent of Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge (Ourso) are female—all three schools feature in the US News top-100 list.

International student diversity

Seventy percent of two-year, fulltime MBA programs admit international candidates. China, India, and the US are the major sources for international candidates, according to the 2016 GMAC Application Trends Report.

INSEAD’s place at the top of Business Insider’s “most diverse” list is not surprising—its international aura obviously gives it the top spot. Ninety-four percent of its students (from over 80 nations) and 90 percent of its faculty are international. Besides, its international business curriculum attracts the best candidates from the world over.

IE, second on the Business Insider list, has 91 percent students and 58 percent faculty from abroad—curricula with entrepreneurial content and a wide range of business degrees make it a favorite destination for students from 70 countries. At ESADE, in the third spot, 96 percent of students and 38 percent of faculty members are international. (For more on how business schools bring in international students, see MBA Crystal Ball article on international student recruitment strategies.)

Before the pandemic, the demand for graduate management education had hit a dip by about 3% compared to its previous years. Unwelcoming employment opportunities for internationals was among the reasons which was in turn redirected after pandemic hit. More students moved towards graduate education as schools became more flexible and students saw this as an opportunity to increase their marketability. Since 2020, there has been an increase in volume of applications, with 2021 remaining more or less flat. International applications increased for top ranking schools. For instance FT 51-100 ranked schools reported a growth (58% international vs 37% domestic) while US News and World Report too showed 73% international applications in its top ranked schools.

Race/ethnic diversity

Loyola’s Quinlan, Chicago, Illinois, goes beyond gender in its quest for diversity (50 percent female students in its healthcare MBA program). A report from 2015 says that 27 percent of its students are Asian, African-American, or Latino, says Katherine Acles, Assistant Dean of Graduate Programs.

But even as b-schools prepare to increase diversity—so that they reflect the larger business world, which is a demand of corporates—enrollment of minorities remains low. One of the problems is a lack of role models. Schools are struggling to conquer a feeling among minorities that they won’t fit into the b-world mold.

There are success stories, nevertheless: Cornell’s Johnson School, for example, managed to increase its minority student enrollment from just 5 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2011.

Schools’ quest for race/ethnic diversity is bolstered by several organizations, including the National Black MBA Association and the National Hispanic MBA Association. The Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), through its MBA Prep Program, guides members of minority groups through the application and interview process. The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management (Consortium MBA) grants minority students merit-based, full-tuition fellowships through an annual competition. The Riordan MBA Fellows Program prepares and motivates students to compete efficiently for MBA seats and build successful management careers.

An alum of New York University’s Stern School says the MLT is an invaluable resource for minority students, and provides quality training along with access to admission officers. She says the Association of Hispanic and Black Business Students at Stern also helped her in reviewing her essays and keeping pressure away on interview day.

Schools also get assistance from MBADiversity, a multicultural nonprofit organizations of MBAs and business leaders who want to build a sense of unity among races, nationalities, and genders. The organization lends a hand to MBA applicants preparing for tests, identify financial options, search for jobs, and nurture friendships among students of different backgrounds. It guides b-schools and companies in recruiting diverse talent.

Fifteen schools have joined the Robert A. Toigo Foundation’s efforts to find exceptional MBA talent among minorities and award scholarships to students and alumni through mentoring, internships, and job placements within the financial services industry.

The Ten School Diversity Alliance, consisting of Anderson, Chicago GSB, Columbia, Darden, HBS, Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Stanford GSB, Tuck, and Wharton, has joined schools’ pursuit of better minority representation.

Alex Lawrence, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid, UCLA Anderson, admits that the lack of diversity in corporate America reflects to an extent in business schools. Anderson wants to make its student body reflect the general population.

In a June 2016 post, US News named the top 10 MBA programs with the highest percentage of full-time students from underrepresented minorities in 2015. The top five programs were those at Howard University, DC (percentage of underrepresented minorities: 84.5); Florida International University (44.2); University of Miami (30.5); American University-Kogod, DC (29); and La Salle University, PA (19.7).

Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Atlanta, Georgia, encourages increased representation of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Native Americans.

Julie Barefoot GoizuetaIn conversation with MBA Crystal Ball, Julie Barefoot, Associate Dean of MBA Admissions at Goizueta, stresses the need for a multipronged approach to ensuring a diverse class. Schools that don’t have a specific plan on diversity will not see it appearing magically, she says.

We asked her to share some specific plans that Goizueta has to increase diversity. She says, “Diversity is one of our core values and Goizueta seeks to enroll a diverse group of MBA candidates along a number of dimensions, but most importantly want to have underrepresented groups, specifically minorities (African American, Hispanic/Latino American and Native American) as well as women and veterans represented in our MBA programs.

Our commitment to recruiting minorities and women is long-standing and our efforts are multi-faceted. For example, we have partnered with the nation’s leading student pipeline organizations, those being MLT and The Consortium (CGSM) to attract full-time minority MBA candidates and the Forte organization to attract qualified female MBA candidates.

And, for almost two decades we have hosted an on-campus minority student recruiting event (now a weekend event). For many years we have also hosted a number of on-campus events to encourage female candidates to consider the value of an MBA degree and to demonstrate that Goizueta is a supportive learning environment for female MBA candidates.

In October 2016, we hosted our first, annual Women’s Conference (ENGAGE) to showcase the quality of our faculty and the strength of the Goizueta female alumni network to prospective female MBA candidates. And, last fall we also began a new partnership with four other top 20 MBA programs where we co-hosted a women’s leadership speaker series in three major US cities, NYC, DC and Boston. ”

“Three years ago we applied for and received a significant grant from The Goizueta Foundation to build the pipeline of qualified Hispanic/Latino MBA candidates and to support their application to our MBA programs. With that grant, we created a Hispanic/Latino College Student Case Competition with case sponsor Atlanta United (Major League Soccer franchise) in 2015 and The Coca-Cola Company in 2016. The grant also enabled us to provide GMAT test vouchers and other support to make attainment of an MBA more accessible.”

“In the past 5+ years, we have proactively recruited US military veterans to apply to our MBA programs and again, these efforts have been designed to showcase how our small, intimate learning community is the kind of environment that would support a veteran’s transition from the military into the civilian workforce. We host Veteran-specific information sessions at several of our recruiting events as well as Webinars where current student-veterans and MBA alumni veterans share their MBA experiences with prospective students.”

According to more recent Bloomberg Businessweek’s Best Diversity Score 2022-23, the top b-schools with highest diversity index are the lesser known Howard, Florida International (Chapman)George Washington, Hult, Houston (Bauer), Tulane (Freeman), North Carolina State (Jenkins), followed by the more popular Pennsylvania (Wharton), Rochester (Simon), and more. These scores are based on race and ethnicity (50%) and gender (50%).

Socioeconomic diversity

As for socioeconomic diversity, b-schools are trying to ease the financial burden that students face, by offering various types of assistance themselves and by providing information about organizations that can come to their rescue.

For example, the Columbia Business School partners with Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, which paves educational and career paths for underprivileged communities. As many young people in other countries who aspire to study in the US are concerned about the related economic burdens on their families back home, schools reach out to them with scholarships, tuition discounts, and information on other resources.

As many as 27 percent of students enrolled in full-time two-year programs for the incoming class of 2016-17 receive merit-based scholarships, 6 percent fellowships, and 5 percent assistantships. Besides, 4 percent have secured need-based scholarships, 2 percent stipend, 2 percent reduced tuition, and 1 percent on-campus work-study.

Harvard Business School has been working closely with its student leaders to ensure that their HBS community is socioeconomically diverse. In 2019, two student leaders set up a Socioeconomic Inclusion Task Force to address the challenges and work needed for including students from all economic and social backgrounds.

Sexual diversity

Business schools along with the Consortium and Forté reach out to applicants from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. However, this is not as easy as it sounds, because asking applicants to identify themselves based on their sexuality is a sensitive matter. Gays and lesbians themselves are confused whether they should identify themselves by their sexual orientation.

They should, says the LGBT Student Association of Harvard Business School, urging these applicants to be “out” in their MBA applications. It points out that the admissions office has no biases on this score, and it wishes to increase the presence of the LGBT community on the campus.

Schools conduct special events to showcase their LGBT-friendly initiatives. For example, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business has been conducting the LGBT Weekend since 2011. The school also participates in MBA recruiting events that increase opportunities for LGBTQ+ community members in business education.

Age, industrial background

B-schools also ensure that they have students in different age groups and with varied work experiences and industrial backgrounds. Dia Draper, Director, Strategic Initiatives, MBA Program, Tuck School, says in a post on Tuck’s MBA blog that some people who thought they were too old (read “in the 40s”) for an MBA are now alum or current students. The school has obviously created an environment where “silverbacks” can thrive along with their twenty-something classmates. It sees their maturity, life experience, and career as a resource.

Other top schools, too, encourage students with diverse work experience. The work experience of the 2017 incoming class at Stanford GSB, for example, is zero to 13 years. The University of Michigan’s Ross includes people from many industries—20 percent of the class is from the financial services sector, 14 percent from consulting, 10 percent from education/nonprofit, and 9 percent each from manufacturing and technology sectors.

Top schools also have classes with students with diverse interests, too. For example, INSEAD, which FT has ranked as the top b-school in the world in its 2016 list, has a skydiver, kayaker, salsa dancer, guitarist, an Israeli army-woman, an actor-poet, and an explorer as part of a class. No wonder that INSEAD, which has campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, calls itself the “Business school for the world.”

Miles to go

Despite the efforts taken by business schools, there’s plenty that can be done.

“Women and Minority candidates are still underrepresented in MBA programs,” says Julie Barefoot, “especially in full-time MBA programs, despite the concerted efforts of the nation’s leading MBA programs. There are multitude of reasons that minorities and women are still underrepresented in graduate business programs. As you know, the average years of work experience for a full time MBA candidates at Goizueta is five years and often female and minority candidates are reluctant to quit their job and pursue an MBA at that juncture.”

She adds, “Research has shown that both women and minorities are more debt-averse in terms of borrowing substantial funds to pursue a graduate business degree and therefore, we often have more success in recruiting these populations into our working professional (Evening and MBA for Executive programs). Of course, we offer merit-based scholarships to all admitted candidates for each of our MBA programs.”

“Another challenge is that female and minority candidates are less likely to be quantitatively prepared for the rigors of a selective MBA program because many did not take a quantitatively-focused undergraduate degree or did not perform well in those courses. Being quantitatively prepared for MBA studies is one of the key elements of admission to a leading business school. So, I often counsel minority and female candidates to focus on the quantitative section of the GMAT or GRE, especially if they did not have any (or many) quantitative courses in college.”

Also read American B-school’s love-hate relationship with international students

Resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 11 13, 14, 15. 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 | Image credit: Forte Foundation

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7 thoughts on “How the best MBA programs strive to increase diversity in the class”

  1. Hi Sameer,

    I have close to 4 years of experience as a technical recruiter, i am a B.Tech(Mechanical) graduate and looking forward to do an MBA program to pursue career in the core HR activities rather being a recruiter. Full time MBA or EMBA which one will be a good option for me. I am 28 Years old now.

    Thanks in Advance,

  2. Hello there. I am a chartered accountant from India and ongoing my CFA. Can I get into Harvard. Of course I’ll have to work on my tests. I have work experience in India. But can I get in? And if I do then can I get a job in investment banking at analyst level on MBA finance.
    Appreciate your reply
    Thanx in advance

  3. Hi,

    This is Ashish working in Oracle and having an experience of 5 years with a consultant position and a client facing experience, i have an active GRE score of 296(138V/158Q/2.5A). I couldn’t think of retaking the exam again.
    Just out of curiosity i am thinking of doing Executive MBA or PGPX of One year.
    Wanted to know the possibility to get into one year full time program of ISB.

    Thanks in advance

  4. Hi Sameer, I’m an engineering student from IT, going to graduate soon. I have an interest in project planning and in analyst positions in IT companies. Will an MBA be useful? In what discipline?

  5. Hello Sameer, I am Sudiksha. I am in my BA second year for now and i am looking forward to pursue a career in MBA from a foreign university. I am confused about the countries which can be a good option for studying and also the job prospects in the same. I dont have any work experience as you can see. I need some guidance here . So help me with this.


  6. Hi Sameer,

    I have a technical background with 6 years of experience in IT industry. I am currently preparing for GMAT, what do you think should be my target colleges for executive MBA?

  7. @Santosh: Full-time MBA always better than EMBA if you can manage it.

    @Digvijay: Very little information and too much of speculation in there, isn’t it buddy? Start with this:

    @Ashish: Your experience would be a good fit for programs like ISB. Too early for PGPX.

    @Brins: You can consider options like PMP. Cheaper and more relevant to what you are doing.

    @Sudiksha: Here are some good countries to consider:

    @Upasana: We have shared guidelines on school selection here:


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