Business schools bursting with graduate students

Despite a prolonged business slump in the United States, there is no dearth of young capitalists eager to begin their climb up the corporate ladder.

As the nation's graduate business schools open this fall, lecture halls and classrooms will be filled to capacity, continuing a trend toward higher enrollment evident since 1969.

According to estimates by Susan Broyles, survey director of the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment this year will surpass the 200,000 mark, up from 148,000 in 1976.

''Business has come back into fashion after being in decline through the early '70s, and enrollment is reflective of that,'' says John Flowers of the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce's admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania.

George Abraham, assistant dean at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics, adds: ''(The higher enrollment statistics) are not exactly new, but they're significant for their longevity. This particular cycle of high interest in business schools has gone on longer than a lot of people expected.''

Enrollment at many of the top business schools has remained steady by choice - the schools have limited the size of the classes. But applications, while leveling off, continue to roll in at unprecedented levels. Elizabeth Day, admissions director for the Amos Tuck School of Business and Administration at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., says the school has been receiving more than 2,000 applications a year for a class size that has been set at about 140 students for a number of years.

Overall, the number of MBA degrees conferred has risen from 19,400 in 1969 to an estimated 60,000 in 1982. The bulk of this increase is occurring at smaller institutions that are expanding existing degree programs or creating new ones to meet the demand. Much of that increase is attributable to the higher percentage of women and foreign students seeking degrees.

While the rate of increase in enrollment has declined somewhat over the last two years, the fact that it hasn't ceased altogether is seen as nothing short of remarkable by many educators. Factors weighing against increased enrollment include a shrinking of the pool of prospective business students (the number of students graduating from high school peaked in 1976 and will continue to decline through the middle of this decade), rising tuition, and the lessening availability of financial aid. In addition, many corporations are cutting back on their recruiting.

Still, the economic sword cuts two ways. Historically, business school enrollment has been countercyclical with the economy - some students choose graduate school as a means of riding out a recession. Others risk the investment of thousands of dollars in a graduate degree because ''education overkill'' is seen as the only way to land a promising job in tough economic times.

''I'm here to increase my options and get the special skills needed to go that extra step in business,'' says Robert Baron, a second year student at Harvard Business School. ''The salary factor isn't an overriding concern for me.''

Other students cite the personal challenge of conquering the ''intellectual boot camp'' of graduate school but they decry the tendency of many ''to jump on the MBA bandwagon,'' turning an advanced degree into the equivalent of the BA of 20 years ago.

To some the turnaround from small enrollment figures of a decade ago is due to the stigma undergraduates attached to business in general a decade ago. In a recent speech, Arjay Miller, dean emeritus of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and former president of Ford Motor Company, said: ''Back in 1969, when I joined Stanford, the attitude of university students throughout the country was generally hostile toward business. Students enrolled in business school were often viewed by the general student body as having 'sold out' to 'capitalistic' interests.''

But the recession and demographics may have produced a change of heart. Susan Broyles of the National Center For Education Statistics says enrollment may peak next year, then tail off to 1980 levels.

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