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How Coronavirus Affects Admitted, Prospective International MBA Students

Ilana Kowarski

Given the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it's understandable for international students who applied to U.S. business schools to worry that the crisis might interfere with their MBA study plans. Last week, the U.S. State Department stopped providing routine visa services in many parts of the world because of the global outbreak of COVID-19, and it is unclear when the suspension will end.

"It is nearly impossible to accurately predict how COVID-19 will continue to affect U.S. study visas," Samantha Nesper, director of graduate admissions at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business, wrote in an email.

"Universities are as much at the mercy of governmental decisions as our prospective students are in that regard. The what-ifs and unknowns surrounding this crisis are frankly dizzying. What I can say confidently is this: we want international students here. International students are valued members of our community, enriching the classroom with diverse perspectives and backgrounds," she says.

[Read: How U.S. Coronavirus Measures Affect International Students.]

Many U.S. business school leaders, admissions officers and faculty members have expressed that they remain interested in recruiting talented international students regardless of where they come from.

"Business is a global enterprise," says Susan Fournier, Allen Questrom professor and dean at Boston University's Questrom School of Business. Fournier notes that the economies of various countries are closely connected and multinational corporations are common.

No matter an MBA candidate's country of origin, he or she should expect to be judged on merit, and candidates from countries seriously affected by the new coronavirus will not be discriminated against on that basis, some MBA admissions experts emphasize.

"Our hearts are with them, because I know it's a difficult time," says Kelly R. Wilson, executive director of masters admissions at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh. "My advice is to try to stay positive about the opportunities that are ahead. There is a lot that can happen between now and the start of the program."

[Read: How Having an MBA on Your Resume Affects Your Career Prospects.]

Wilson says her school will be flexible about granting deferrals to admitted students who submit seat deposits and subsequently encounter visa obstacles. "We want them to know that we want them to be part of our community," she says.

Gregory Prastacos, professor and dean of the school of business at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, says the ability of international students to start on-ground MBA programs in the U.S. this fall will depend on when U.S. consulates reopen for business. Prastacos notes that his school has made special accommodations for its admitted international students in case they are unable to secure visas before the fall semester begins.

The school will offer online MBA courses this fall during time slots that are convenient for international students, Prastacos says.

"This could create an advantage for international MBA students, who would be able to continue to work in their home countries and start their graduate education during this semester," he wrote in an email. "For students who wish to attend in person but are not able to secure visas to travel in time for the fall semester, we are offering the ability to defer their admission from the Fall 2020 semester to the Spring 2021 or Fall 2021 semester."

B-school administrators appear to be doing everything they can to accommodate both admitted and prospective international students.

"There isn't an institution out there than can make a promise regarding visas, but there are many institutions that can promise to advocate for international students throughout the enrollment process and be flexible in response to the ongoing changes brought on by coronavirus," Nesper says.

Prospective international students with concerns should mention them to B-schools, Nesper advises.

"Reach out to your target schools and ask what your options are regarding testing, deadlines, admissions decisions and enrollment deferrals. Be honest about your individual barriers. You may find that each institution has different policies and contingency plans in place, but you will also find yourself armed with the knowledge necessary to make the best decision for you."

[Read: 7 Common Mistakes International MBA Applicants Make.]

Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School in Massachusetts, published a blog post March 20 emphasizing Harvard's interest in and commitment to international students.

"Today I want to reaffirm that HBS MBA Admissions will continue to admit the most talented international and domestic applicants, irrespective of citizenship, as we strive to build a class of leaders who will make a difference in the world," he wrote. "We hope that the global situation around COVID-19 improves and that the suspension of visa services passes quickly. ... Any international admitted student who is unable to start the program due to a visa issue despite their best efforts will be deferred to next year's MBA class."

The coronavirus crisis has emerged at a time when U.S. business schools are already struggling to recruit international students. The number of international applications to these schools for the 2019-2020 school year was 13.7% lower than the year prior, according to statistics released by the Graduate Management Admission Council, a coalition of graduate business schools that administers the Graduate Management Admission Test, commonly known as the GMAT.

A decline in international student enrollment has financial implications for many U.S. B-schools. These students do not typically qualify for federal financial aid and are usually ineligible for in-state discounts at public colleges. They frequently pay more out of pocket than domestic students, though not always, because some international students receive sizable scholarships.

Aaron Blumberg, a Miami-based partner with the Fragomen global immigration services firm, says international students with plans to enroll at U.S. business schools have a "justified concern" about whether they will be able to secure a student visa in time for fall semester, since once consulates reopen they will likely be "quite backlogged" with visa requests.

Summer is typically an extraordinarily busy time at U.S. consulates even without the coronavirus situation, Blumberg notes.

"That being said, I do not believe admissions officers will take into account whether the applicant needs a visa before granting admission," Blumberg wrote in an email. "At least based on the schools that I work with, they are fully committed to granting admission to the best students in the world, regardless of their immigration status or current physical location."

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