Master’s Degrees: What’s Happening in the Business Market?

A recent article written by Eduventures senior analyst Clint Raine, “What’s Happening in the Business Master’s Market?,” stated that master’s degrees conferrals in the business area had only grown by 3% over the past decade while overall master’s degrees conferrals grew by 11%. In the article, Mr. Raine asked if the lower growth rate in conferrals meant that prospects were losing interest in business or if the lower rate was related to something else.

Citing data from three recent surveys of adults interested in master’s programs, Mr. Raine notes that interest in business degrees is still highest among all prospects, as shown by the chart below.

master's degrees 1 Boston

While interest for graduate business degrees continues to be high, it has declined over time. Mr. Raine notes that an explanation for the decline might be the rise of the non-graduate degree market. Comprised of for-credit and non-credit offerings, Mr. Raine observes that this market offers “a compelling combination of price, time, and prestige from institutional partners to professionals hoping to accelerate career growth during a time of economic uncertainty.”

Another explanation provided by Mr. Raine is that the decade of economic growth, pre-pandemic, caused a decline in applications to MBA and other graduate business programs. Using data from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), he writes that only 33% of MBA programs and 41% of other graduate business programs saw an increase in applications for the 2018-19 academic year.

The data changed in the 2019-20 academic year when business schools reported a 70% increase in MBA applications and a 65% increase in other graduate business programs. Some of this growth may be due to more flexible admissions policies (like not needing to submit test scores due to COVID-19). Despite the increase in applications, the yields were down slightly and Mr. Raine notes that that loss in yields is in line with his firm’s adult student prospect surveys for the same period.

Mr. Raine’s analysis deepens through a review of business-related master’s degrees conferred by Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code for codes with more than 1,000 graduates (see the chart below).

master's degrees conferral 2020 Boston

While the CIP code that includes MBAs is the largest by far in terms of conferrals, Mr. Raine notes that the 2012-2020 growth rate for the Management Sciences and Quantitative Methods CIP is off the charts with a 129% jump in conferrals from 2019 alone. After eliminating schools that reported conferrals to this CIP for the first time in 2020, the growth rate was still 40% year over year.

The importance of data integrity for research and other purposes cannot be overemphasized. Mr. Raine notes that the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), a division of the U.S. Department of Education, is “alive to the problem.”

I only had to read further to see what “alive to the problem” meant. In 2020, NCES issued a new CIP code for Data Analytics. Unfortunately, it is under multidisciplinary studies and not business or computer science.

When I recently analyzed the College Scorecard dataset for debt incurred by law school and medical school graduates, I noted a similar problem in that earnings data and debt was reported under Ph.D. programs for those schools, while graduates were reported under first professional degree (or vice versa). When I contacted the Department of Education, they suggested that I write those graduate schools and ask them to fix their institutional reporting.

Given that the odds are high that there are inconsistencies in data classification, it’s important that entities or institutions researching this type of data have someone with a broader background than databases in charge of their institutional reporting or market research. During my years leading American Public University System (APUS), I made it clear that all numbers used for publication or key research were only to be used after a review by our Institutional Research (IR) department.

Sadly, in many organizations, the IR and marketing teams rarely communicate, much less coordinate, their research. Using the IT department to simply “pull some numbers” without IR direction to give context to those numbers is not a good idea.

The bottom line, according to Mr. Raine, is that interest in general MBAs will continue to decline while interest in shorter, specialized business master’s degrees will increase. The “blurred” lines between business and technology for some degrees like data analytics will continue to create reporting issues for schools deciding which CIP codes to use.

I don’t think it’s a surprise to most business school deans that interest in general MBAs has declined. It doesn’t take long to visit a few B-school websites to see that most of these educational institutions offer more than an MBA at the master’s level and that those degrees can be completed in eight to ten months, not two years. Online graduate certificates and master’s degrees appear to be available at many business schools as well.

The history of a general MBA is that it was originally designed for college graduates with a liberal arts degree. As the number of liberal arts graduates declined over time, the general MBA curriculum has not changed that much. Savvy students with undergraduate business degrees have steered away from the general MBA and have earned specialized master’s degrees in finance, accounting, marketing, or another area linked to their career preference.

Is it time to change the curriculum of a “general” MBA? In his book Work Disrupted, author Jeff Schwartz noted that despite the 34-year gap between his MBA and his daughter’s, the core curriculum had not changed.

If I were an innovative business school dean with an equally innovative faculty (innovative in this case means someone willing to change the current MBA curriculum to provide a more relevant education to future business leaders), I would consider using stackable certificates to construct the 60-credit hour program.

For liberal arts graduates with no undergraduate business courses, I would require a 24 credit-hour business fundamentals certificate. This certificate would have classes in financial accounting, managerial accounting, intro to finance, organizational behavior, statistics, intro to marketing, economics, and business law. Students with undergraduate degrees in business administration could earn transfer credits for this certificate if they met the requirements.

The remaining 36 credit hours could be earned through business-oriented certificates. Each of the certificates would have an “endorsement” by a major employer, an industry association, or both. Any combination of certificates in data analytics, marketing, finance, accounting, logistics, or similar topics could be used to earn the degree, provided that the total credit hours from all certificates equal 36. Each certificate would be a minimum of nine credit hours and a maximum of 12.

The “new” MBA program that I propose is not necessarily new. I’m sure most of these classes and concentrations exist. It allows for flexibility toward the current or future career of working adult learners.

Completing a certificate takes a lot less time and money than completing a degree. Completing different certificates may depend on the career path that people are already on or one that they want to be on.

So what is happening in the business master’s market? It appears that much is happening, but it is difficult to determine exactly what is changing due to inconsistencies in CIP code classifications.

My guess is that the most market savvy B-schools are adding short-term certificates to meet the needs of their potential students. Will we see a stackable MBA? My guess is yes provided it is designed to meet professional and accreditation standards.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence