The recession is pushing some displaced workers and new college graduates into business school, but not so many that hiding from the job market by going to school is becoming a trend.
"People come back to school during hard times," said Daniel E. Costello, dean of the Robert G. Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore. "The opportunity costs are lower than during good times."
Dr. Costello and deans at Loyola College and the University of Maryland agree that the recession has changed the mix of their student bodies. They say students can build their skills by going to school during a recession, the better to pounce on advancement opportunities when the economy turns around.
But they are careful not to exaggerate: The change has been slight.
Recession refugees are a handful of anecdotal cases, not a stampede. And the recession may be keeping some other students out of school.
"It's very tough to get any hard numbers," said Rudolph P. Lamone, dean of the University of Maryland business school.
Indeed, national statistics don't make a clear case that interest in MBA degrees is growing. The number of people registering for the Graduate Management Aptitude Test is running flat at about 300,000 this year, said Bill Broesamle, president of the Graduate Management Admissions Council in Los Angeles.
"What usually has happened during recessions, as far as we can tell, is that there's some increase in the number of people who are interested in going full-time . . . but the number of people who pursue MBAs part-time goes down in a recession," he said. "There are so many crosscurrents [that] it's difficult to attribute changes to just one."
Sharon Barber, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business in St. Louis, doesn't know why interest in graduate business school seems to be sluggish. "It may be the economy or a lack of interest in this degree," she said.
The number of MBAs awarded annually in the United States rose about 25 percent during the 1980s, to 75,000 per year, Mr. Broesamle said. But he said some industries that had been heavy consumers of freshly minted MBAs are going through restructurings that make it unclear how popular business school will be in the 1990s.
"There are structural changes in a number of industries that are likely to affect MBA employment, and that's likely to affect interest in pursuing the MBA degree," he said.
Dr. Costello said the UB students who have come back to school are leaving fields like banking and finance, which were hot in the mid-to-late 1980s.
"You're going to see people coming in out of fields where opportunities are shrinking dramatically," he said. "We're very much seeing that."
A. Kimbrough Sherman, dean of graduate programs in business at Loyola, said his school is seeing more MBA applications from new college graduates. But he said that gain is offset by a lull in the interest of applicants with more work experience.
Dr. Sherman has dealt with at least two major Maryland companies that cut or eliminated tuition reimbursement plans. One company reversed itself and continued to pay for courses.
And Dr. Sherman said layoffs cut both ways: Some laid-off workers take advantage of their forced time off to keep pushing for a degree, but others drop out. Meanwhile, some workers who are still employed at companies that have restructured must squeeze school out of their schedules.
"The victim of the cutback and the one who has to cover the heavier job are likely to cut back," he said. But, he added, "At least half a dozen people this year have told me they were laid off but are staying with the program."
Still, Dr. Costello said, an MBA can be part of a manager's lifelong education. And he predicted that process will become more important as the pace of global economic change quickens.
"With change becoming more or less constant, you're going to see people changing [careers] five or six times," he said. "Education was more episodic in the past. Now we're dealing with lifelong learning."