Applications to business schools are down—but women are making modest gains

Juice Images | Getty Images

Workers with MBA degrees earn some of the highest wages in the country.

PayScale estimates that MBA holders earn roughly $87,000 per year on average, and The Financial Times estimates that the average salary for a recent business-school graduate is roughly $150,000. Both of these estimations are significantly higher what Americans make on average, which is closer to $50,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, U.S. business schools are seeing a major drop in applications.

But business schools are also calling attention to a silver lining. MBA programs enroll a higher percentage of women than ever before — a trend that some experts say may help close the gender pay gap and inequities in business.

This year, total applications decreased by 3.1%, according to an annual survey of 1,145 graduate business programs by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

There are several potential causes for the dip, including a strong economy and declining interest from international students.

"A decline in applications is probably somewhat cyclical," Elissa Sangster, chief executive officer of the Forté Foundation, a non-profit focused on women's advancement and gender parity in business school told CNBC Make It. "They always seem to rebound, especially if the economy goes into a bit of downturn. And I think that you're seeing also perhaps a consolidation in terms of where students are sending applications."

Anthony P. Carnevale, research professor and Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, confirmed that trends in application volume at graduate business programs can typically be attributed to the strength of the current economy because workers are incentivized to continue working in a strong labor market.

"When the economy's down, you should go to school — when there's no hay to make," he told CNBC Make It. "Now's the time to get work experience. When the economy goes down, go back to school."

Sangster is optimistic that MBA application volumes will rebound, but said the trend she is paying closest attention to is the percentage of women in business schools.

While women outnumber men at all levels of education, men still dominate business programs. 

The Forté Foundation hosts conferences and funds fellowships for women in MBA programs and partners with business schools to promote gender equity. According to their most recent survey of their 54 business school partners, U.S. schools have roughly 39% women enrolled overall — up from 32% in 2011.

According to the Forté Foundation, in 2005 they did not observe a single business school that enrolled 40% women, and today they count at least 19 schools that have reached this threshold including Harvard Business School, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sangster hopes that the uptick in women business school students will help close the gender pay gap (which economists estimate is about 80 cents earned by women for every dollar earned by a man on average and is even wider for black, Latina and Native American women) and develop a pipeline of women who are undeniably qualified to enter the C-suite, which remains heavily dominated by men.

An MBA can "open up a lot of opportunities for women," she said. "It can boost your salary, which I think can give you an economic advantage and economic mobility. It can give you the ability to transition careers and more easily move across industries."

She continued, "We need more women in leadership. We need more women in the business world, and we think that that's ultimately good for business. Return on investment, return on equity, those things are better when gender balance is strong at the top of a company."

Monty Rakusen | Getty Images

To be sure, whether or not increases in MBA attainment among women will close the gender pay gap is yet to be seen.

According to PayScale's State of the Gender Pay Gap in 2019 report, significantly larger pay gaps become apparent when considering factors like education. According to PayScale, highly-educated women experience among the largest pay gaps: Women with MBAs take home 74 cents for every dollar earned by men with MBAs.

One key driver of the gender pay gap among MBAs is differences in how often men and women are promoted after graduating from business school.

"A lot of [the gap] has to do with industry and with promotion velocity," Lydia Frank, PayScale vice president of content strategy, previously told CNBC Make It. "If women aren't making it to the executive team and the C-Level with as great frequency as their male peers, then of course there's this big disparity in the MBA numbers, right? Because many CEOs and other C-level execs do have MBAs, and most of them are men."

"The promotion piece," she said, "is a part of this uncontrolled pay gap story. If you look at all men working in our economy versus all women working, men are over-represented in leadership positions, whether that's C-level, VP and even the senior director level."

Women also tend to enter lower-paying fields, even when they have similar educational backgrounds to men. Women with MBAs are more likely to pursue careers in marketing and advertising compared to men, while men are more likely to pursue careers in higher-paying industries like financial services.

"I would say sometimes it's a choice and sometimes it's not," said Frank. "Sometimes that's just where they're getting hired, even if they have been attempting to be hired elsewhere."

But business school advocates hope that MBAs can address both of these issues: give women clear evidence that they are deserving of promotions and help channel more women into traditionally high-paying fields.

Executive MBA programs, which typically cater to workers with several year of professional experience, are also seeing a modest uptick in the number of women enrolled.

"The percentage of female students in executive MBA programs reached an all-time high this year at 31%," Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, the academic association that represents the EMBA industry told CNBC Make It. "In no way are we saying we've arrived; gender parity is the goal. We're not pounding our chest and saying 'We've done it,' but we do feel good about the trend because if you go back to 2014, it was just 25%."

Desiderio said the average student in an executive MBA program is 38 years old and has 14 years of work experience and nine years of management experience. He hopes executive MBAs can help give women who are already close to management and C-suite positions that extra step needed to break barriers in business.

"Historically, the legal profession and the medical profession seemed to be better alternatives for women… It seemed like there was more opportunity in those two fields than in business at the higher echelons, and slowly I think we're starting to see that change," he said. "Is it changing fast enough? No. But it's changing."

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss:

Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money
Michael Horn: How to tell if your degree is worth the money