AI, Inclusion, and Sustainability: Must-Haves for Business School Aspirants

Double exposure of work space with computer and human brain drawing hologram. Brainstorm concept.

As the world emerged from a turbulent year that witnessed greater geopolitical conflicts, economic uncertainty, volatile job markets and disruptive technology, individuals are turning to graduate management education with a new-found focus.

They aim to upgrade their skills while approaching their study, work—and life—with a purpose, according to an annual survey of global prospective students of business school released today by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).

This year’s summary report considers data collected in the 2023 calendar year from 4,105 respondents in 132 countries around the world. Among them, 42 percent are female, 61 percent are Gen Z, and 29 percent of the U.S. sample are from underrepresented populations.

The research shows more than two-thirds of potential students agreed that equity and inclusion, as well as sustainability, are important or very important to their academic experience.

In addition, three-quarters of candidates say efforts around well-being — defined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of no poverty, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, and decent work and economic growth — are important to them when pursing higher education, to the point that many of them would eliminate schools from their consideration if these themes were not incorporated in the curriculum.

What’s also driving the interest in advanced business education of would-be students is the transformative technology of generative artificial intelligence (AI).

Candidate demand for it grew 38 percent year-over-year, with two-fifths now saying it is essential to their curricula. Interest was the highest among those from the Middle East and Latin America as well as among millennials and men.

Global interest in STEM-certified business programs also grew 38 percent in five years—and to new heights in Asia, driven by demand in India and Greater China.

GMAC CEO Joy Jones said the 2024 survey of prospective students revealed that candidates expected graduate business education to help equip them to advance social impact as a component of their professional and personal goals.

“Their strong desire to build evergreen skills like leadership in an uncertain world, data-driven problem-solving, and effective technology and human capital management persists, even though their preferences for delivery formats and study destinations may shift,” she said.

“I am encouraged by how today’s candidate is aspiring and adapting to meet new global challenges in the forever-evolving business environment and really owning their career trajectory.

“It is creating enormous opportunities for business schools to satisfy the ever-changing demands of candidates and industry with a wide variety of degree offerings and course flexibility.”

Demand for flexibility reaches new high.

Over the past five years, interest in hybrid learning has grown around the globe at the expense of in-person learning. Most hybrid candidates want to spend half or more of their class time in-person and the rest online.

This growth is seen across regions, except for Central and South Asia, with preference for hybrid study being the highest in Africa and North America. Not surprisingly – and consistent with previous years’ findings – women are more likely to prefer hybrid programs compared to men, with 20 percent of female prospective students with this preference compared to 15 percent of men.

“This year’s prospective student survey adds to a growing slate of evidence that candidates’ appetite for flexibility is increasing,” said Andrew Walker, director of research analysis and communications at GMAC and the report author.

“Interest in hybrid learning has grown across regions and demographic types as hybrid workplaces have also increasingly become available and expected by prospective employees. While in-person learning remains the most preferred delivery format among most candidates, its dominance among candidates is diminishing.”

Affordability and growth of quality in-region institutions reshape global student mobility.

While the United States remains the top study destination for most business school candidates globally, multi-year survey data shows that more candidates than ever before plan to apply to study within their country of citizenship instead of internationally, particularly in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. F

or example, most Indian candidates now plan to apply domestically, growing from 41 percent in 2022 to 53 percent in 2023. Among them, most cited affordability as their top reason, followed by the reputation of India’s educational system.

At the same time, candidates of Greater China showed less interest in studying in the U.S. with a nine-point drop since 2019, reaching a five-year low. While Chinese candidates still associate the U.S. with better preparation for their careers, a reputable educational system, and an attractive location, their interest in studying in Western Europe has largely remained strong, with a majority associating Western European programs, which tend to be shorter in duration, with affordability.

“As high-quality educational institutions and economic opportunities continue to rise in Asia, it is no surprise that many candidates would choose to stay closer to home instead of traveling afar,” said Curtis Alan Ferguson, managing partner of Ventech China and a board member of GMAC.

“That said, graduate business programs in the U.S. and Western Europe still enjoy quite an advantage because of their established reputations of the educational systems and well-rounded preparation for candidate careers.”

Ben Ready
Ben Ready founded MBA News in 2014 and is the Managing Editor. He is a former business and finance journalist with Australian Associated Press (AAP) and Dow Jones Newswires in London. Ben completed his MBA in 2012 and was awarded the QUT GMAA Entrepreneurship Prize. He is also the founder and Managing Director of RGC Media & Mktng (