Poets&Quants: STEM Designation Coming Soon to Thunderbird

All The STEM Programs At Major U.S. Business Schools


At first, it was about politics. (As always, it’s about cost, too.) Now, for some schools, it may be about helping students and alumni in an emergency.

For more than three years, business schools big and small in the United States have embraced STEM as a way to mitigate the losses of Indian, Chinese, and other indispensable international student populations in response to attrition caused by heated immigration rhetoric, higher tuition and cost of living, and other negative factors. Designating all or part of their MBAs and specialized master’s degrees as Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math programs allows B-schools to lure international students with the promise of legal standing to remain in the U.S. three times longer, making it an easy and popular move — if not nearly enough to offset the larger antipodal forces driving down both application volume and international enrollment.

Now another, even larger force has emerged. The coronavirus pandemic now wreaking havoc on admissions season — and commencement ceremonies, job prospects, freedom of movement, and so much more — has upended the graduate business education universe. The keenly felt chaos is ubiquitous — but with interesting side effects. While painfully disruptive on so many levels, the pandemic is also likely to become another big driver of the STEM movement in U.S. B-schools.

Recently two more programs joined the movement: Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business announced STEM designation for its full-time MBA last month, and on Thursday (April 16) its affiliated school, the Thunderbird School of Global Management, confirmed that a STEM designation is in the works there as well. But while ASU Carey’s move was in the offing for more than a year, Thunderbird is joining the crowded market of B-school STEM offerings amid the full throes of COVID-19. Dean Sanjeev Khagram tells Poets&Quants that his school is actively seeking the designation for its one-year Master of Global Management and, thereafter, select executive programs. Khagram says he expects the designation to be in place for the Thunderbird MGM within the year.


International graduates of U.S. business schools currently may hold U.S. jobs for only 12 months before needing an H1-B visa. But there’s a workaround. In 2016, the federal government created the STEM Designated Degree Program, which makes it possible for international graduates to remain stateside for an additional 24 months after graduation and receive training through work experience. That means students with STEM-designated master’s degrees can work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation without a H1-B visa. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for STEM jobs will grow by 13% by 2027, with higher wages than non-STEM jobs: The national average for STEM salaries is $87,570, while non-STEM jobs earn roughly half as much, with an annual average of $45,700; and of course MBAs from top schools make a great deal more.

Reading the lay of the land, schools quickly began designing and offering STEM programs to take advantage of the new rules and attract new interest from foreign applicants. The University of Wisconsin-Madison was the first, receiving STEM designation from the Department of Homeland Security for its concentration in Operations & Technology Management in 2016. The next year, Duke University added a STEM Management Science and Technology Management track to the Fuqua School of Business MBA program. And in 2018, the University of Rochester became the first school to have its entire MBA program designated as STEM. That December, Poets&Quants named the Rochester Simon MBA our Program of the Year.

Simon had tested the waters before plunging in with its MBA. The school gained STEM designation for its MS in Marketing Analytics and MS in Business Analytics in September 2016. Simon added STEM designation to its MS in Finance in December 2016 and to its MS in Accountancy in July 2018. Applications surged by 41.4% for all four programs, to 4,104 in 2017-2018 from 2,903 in 2013-2014. However, apps there and everywhere in graduate business education soon began their ongoing nosedive — fueling the STEM movement even more.


The chart above shows new STEM designations in 2019-2020. The past year going back to mid-2019 saw a veritable “STEM-pede,” with 19 major schools declaring STEM designation to some degree. The cause is plain to see in recent application data for the most common program represented, the MBA.

Of the 14 schools above for which we have sufficient MBA application data to make a three-year comparison (those in the top 25 of our 2019 ranking) the total number of applications dropped from 53,251 in 2016-2017 to 45,737 in 2018-2019, an overall decline of 7,514 apps or 14.1%. The biggest losses came at Indiana Kelley (-40.6%), UNC Kenan-Flagler (-38.5%), and CMU Tepper (-28.7%); the smallest were at Columbia (-2.2%), USC Marshall (-5%), and Chicago Booth (-5.2%). Throw Stanford Graduate School of Business into the mix — as P&Q reported in February, Stanford is working on STEM certification of some kind, though nothing has been officially announced — and, because GSB had a loss of only 10.2% over the last three cycles, the numbers improve slightly: a drop from 61,424 to 53,079 among 15 schools, equaling a decline of 8,345 or 13.6%. The average decline also improves with 15 schools instead of 14, to 17% from 17.5%.

Despite their embrace of STEM (but certainly not because of it), many of these programs are bracing for an application hit again this cycle, the most disrupted since the Great Recession a dozen years ago — though some hope for a jump in apps given gatekeepers’ relaxed requirements at some schools. In the midst of a suddenly tight job market, recently graduated international MBAs are pushing for retroactive STEM classification at several leading schools, including Harvard and Northwestern Kellogg, in the hope that having a STEM degree might qualify them for employment deemed essential — which is to say, less likely to be laid off. Meanwhile, criticism of B-schools’ “STEM-pede” continues to mount.


In the past 18 months, Thunderbird Dean Sanjeev Khagram has overseen a $100 million facelift that includes the groundbreaking on a new state-of-the-art facility. The school, once left for dead, is on the rebound, with its new building slated to open in fall 2021. Now Thunderbird is expanding multiple programs and partnering with schools and companies worldwide, and within the year the school’s flagship Master of Global Management degree will have STEM designation to boast about.

Sanjeev Khagram. Thunderbird Director General and Dean

All signs point toward a renaissance in the desert. Will COVID-19 derail or accelerate Thunderbird’s comeback?

“Obviously we’re all pivoting, but we’re quite confident in the kind of digitally enhanced delivery that we’re doing,” Khagram says. “Our faculty and students have really adapted, because of ASU’s digital innovation capacities for Thunderbird. As part of ASU, we’ve been able to transition to what we call ‘digital enhanced,’ digital face-to-face learning, rather than online learning. And that’s gone really well with our current programs.

“We are very strong believers that the world will open up again. Getting STEM is critical, because there’s lots of students from around the world who of course want to stay here and get work experience. But we’ve been very active with our regional centers of excellence around the world in Tokyo, in Nairobi, in Seoul, and soon we’re going to launch in Mexico City, in Sao Paulo, to create opportunities — job opportunities, internship and employment opportunities — for our students, to either go back to their home region or city or go to a different home city or region. Or for our American students to get out into the world. That’s really what makes Thunderbird unique.

“We have a two-pronged strategy for STEM that we’re going to keep advancing, so that we can support those who really do want to stay here, but also working with our alumni and our centers around the world to generate more employment opportunities — so that a student from India doesn’t have to just stay because they think that the United States is the only place. They can actually go to another part of the world.

“We are still continuing to believe that our global strategy has to complement the domestic STEM strategy to create job opportunities for our students.”


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