One of the most important pipelines of African-American professional talent into corporate America has been virtually stagnant for a decade.
Black students comprise less than 10% of business school enrollment on average nationally, and admissions experts say universities haven’t done enough to attract more black students to their M.B.A. programs. At the same time, they say many black students face barriers including the cost of the degree, a shortage of corporate mentors and a lack of diverse leadership at colleges.
Since 2009, the percentage of GMAT exams taken by black U.S. citizens has stalled at about 8% and fell slightly in 2019 from 2010, according to a March study from the nonprofit Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the standardized test required for most graduate business and management programs.
The issue of diversity in M.B.A. programs returned to the spotlight on June 7, when Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria said in a letter that past efforts to recruit black students were “painfully insufficient.” The number of black M.B.A. students at Harvard has been stagnant around 50 per class, or roughly 5% of the total, for three decades, he wrote. AACSB International, the main accrediting firm for business schools, said black students in its member M.B.A. programs stood at 8% last year, up from 6% in 2015.
“I apologize that we have not fought racism as effectively as we could have and have not served our Black community members better,” Mr. Nohria said in the letter, which also comes amid the national outcry stemming from George Floyd’s killing by a white policeman and calls for racial equality. “We have too few Black staff, and even fewer Black colleagues in leadership positions.”
The lack of black students in M.B.A. programs is a factor contributing to low representation in U.S. corporate leadership, admissions consultants and B-school graduates say. About 4.1% of U.S. chief executives and 7.8% of people in management occupations identified as black in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some top programs have said they are investing in new diversity initiatives. After seeing declining black student enrollment, the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley in 2018 pledged to change its M.B.A. application and admissions processes and increase funding for scholarships by 63%. The school says it has since had some improvement and enrolled 19 black students in its 283-person class of 2021, compared with six in the prior year’s class.
Bruce Thompson, head of the nonprofit National Black M.B.A. Association, said efforts to create more student scholarships have helped, but still aren’t enough to significantly move the enrollment needle.
Cost is among the largest obstacles keeping black students from graduate programs, said Kofi Kankam, chief executive of Admit.me, which coaches M.B.A. applicants on admissions.
Black students typically aren’t entering business school with the same wealth standing that some M.B.A. students have, he said, which means they are more reliant on student loans to fund their education. A U.S. Department of Education study in 2018 showed that a larger portion of white master’s degree students receive grant aid from their employer, compared with black and Hispanic students. Employer support for M.B.A. degrees has fallen in general in recent years.
“We are not as flush with financial assets. A lot of us are self-funding a portion of college education,” said Mr. Kankam, a 2004 M.B.A. graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Mr. Kankam said there also aren’t enough mentors pushing prospective black students to pursue an M.B.A. and further their careers.
Shartoyea Scott Dixon, vice president of campus programs at Management Leadership for Tomorrow, which focuses on increasing diversity at business schools and in corporate leadership, cited low minority representation in entry-level jobs at investment banks or consulting firms, employers that often funnel prospective students to graduate business schools. Although some firms have announced efforts to diversify early-career ranks, she said creating long-term changes requires more intentional actions.
“There should be concrete benchmarks for how businesses achieve diversity, and leaders must be held accountable for reaching those metrics,” Ms. Scott Dixon said.
Toluwalase Oladitan, a fresh Harvard graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering, said she plans to apply to B-school so she can learn what it takes to run a company. But the Brooklyn native and first-generation college student said she faces several obstacles, primarily the price, which can exceed $200,000, including living expenses, at top programs.
“For my peers that have more money or from a higher income bracket, they probably have siblings or relatives who have gone through this process. I don’t have that,” she said. “I count myself very lucky, many people are not in my position. If I didn’t go to Harvard, I would be less certain that I would be applying to M.B.A. programs right now.”
Admissions experts say that graduate business schools need to do a better job of establishing a pipeline from undergraduate programs, especially at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
“Top-tier M.B.A. programs haven’t built sustained relationships and efforts to go find students where they are,” Mr. Kankam said. “Not having African-American leaders at these schools means they are not going to undertake some of these strategies.”
Retired HBS professor Steven Rogers says he left the school last year in frustration over a lack of diversity among faculty, staff and curriculum. He said systemic “anti-black practices” at the school have contributed to a culture that is unwelcoming to black students. “It starts at the top,” he said.
In his letter, Mr. Nohria outlined numerous plans to train faculty on better engaging in race-related discussions, report goals for race equity annually and find new ways to recruit—and retain—black students and faculty. An HBS spokesman said the school has also created new roles, stepped up diversity in case studies and expanded outreach to visit HBCUs and other institutions where students of color are more largely represented.
Write to Patrick Thomas at Patrick.Thomas@wsj.com
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