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The State of the (MBA) Union: International students two years into the Trump administration

February 11, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

The 2016 presidential election caused much anxiety in business school admissions departments.

In the habit of training future executives from around the world, U.S. B-school administrators read two conflicting messages in Trump’s rhetoric:

  1. The desire to reduce immigration overall, and
  2. Admiration for a Canadian- or Australian-style “merit-based” immigration system, which would favor MBA graduates.

Two years ago, it was an open question which of these impulses would win, and whether international MBA students would benefit or suffer from the final result. Now, with Democrats in control of the House, the Trump administration’s window to reshape immigration law has more or less closed. So how did things shake out?

Rather anti-climactically, it turns out. The law has not changed at all. Despite a series of bombastic press conferences introducing bills to dramatically reduce legal immigration, Trump was unable to get any of this legislation approved by Congress.

Perhaps the most notable failure was the RAISE Act, which would have halved the number of green cards issued and ended the visa diversity lottery in favor of a “merit-based” points system.  Introduced almost two years ago, the bill went nowhere in the face of universal opposition from Democrats and lobbying by pro-business groups. However, it’s worth noting that even under this most restrictive proposal, a U.S. MBA would have earned potential immigrants 13 points—the highest possible award for education, and a significant portion of the 48 points a “perfect” non-investor applicant could have received. So while none of Trump’s proposals became law, it is not clear that MBA graduates would have struggled to stay in the U.S. even if they had.

Trump had more success making regulatory changes, though here too the impact on MBAs was limited. The U.S. immigration system gives administrators a lot of discretion, and when it became clear that immigration quotas would not be changed legislatively, Trump’s appointees started using that authority to slow visa processing in hopes that they could leave their quotas unfilled. While applicants seeking asylum or contesting deportation have been most aggressively targeted, the new requirement that all visa applicants conduct an interview has caused inconvenience for everyone. For most potential immigrants graduating from a U.S. MBA program, these paperwork delays are cause for annoyance but have no lasting impact on their application.

However, Trump has definitely succeeded in one area: perception. The administration has worked hard to make the U.S. seem like a less welcoming place, particularly to asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. For international graduates from U.S. MBA programs seeking to stay in the country, the most important effect of this campaign is how American companies perceive their own country’s immigration laws: There is some evidence that hiring managers are now less likely to sponsor visas because they perceive them as harder to get. The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, found that only 47 percent of U.S. companies planned or were willing to hire international B-school graduates in 2018, down from 55 percent in 2017. In this way, perceived immigration hurdles can have an impact on MBA grads’ visa chances even if they don’t actually exist.

So what does all this mean for international MBA applicants? On one hand, it’s reassuring to see that America’s longstanding tradition of open immigration can endure two years of unified government under the leadership of an aggressive immigration reductionist. On the other, it’s clear that perception of immigration policy, much like perception of macroeconomic instability or future growth, does play a real role in hiring. But maybe the biggest lesson is that short-term thinking is dangerous in the MBA game. There are many excellent reasons to pursue an MBA in Europe, but applicants who gave up on their U.S. MBA dreams in 2016 or 2017 out of fear of what the Trump administration might do appear to have dramatically reduced their chances of working in the States for no good reason. 

An MBA is a lifetime investment, and it should be judged on lifetime results. If a student is weighing two excellent programs (for example Tuck vs LBS), and has good career prospects in both the U.S. and the UK, maybe the potential inconvenience of visa delays two years from now tips the scales one way or the other. But the on-the-ground experience of an elite U.S. MBA has not changed at all—the 2019-2021 HBS experience will be pretty much identical to that of someone who went there 10 years ago, and probably 10 years from now. The academics, reputation, and powerful networks are still around and growing ever stronger as these institutions build centers in key international cities and diversify their faculty. Applicants should think long-term, cast their net wide, and go to the best school they get into—regardless of today’s headlines.


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