Immigration Policy Hurting U.S. B-Schools

As dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Bill Boulding has been going back-and-forth to India twice annually for the past eight years. But only in the past 12 months has he been hearing a disturbing, even hurtful, question.

Parents are asking him if their children would be safe on an American campus these days. “It is terrible,” he confides. “To hear that question is so opposite of the community we’ve worked so hard to build. It hurts to hear it.”

Yet, behind the question is an increasingly important concern among U.S. educators: the pipeline of international students is shrinking dramatically as anti-immigration rhetoric and uncertainly over work visas has made the U.S. a less desirable place to earn a degree (see MBA Applications Take A Shocking Plunge  At Leading U.S. Business Schools).


“There’s no doubt that immigration policy is having a negative impact on U.S. business schools,” says Boulding in an interview with Poets&Quants. “You’ve seen growth in business schools outside the U.S., but the U.S. is losing the pipeline of talent. If we are going to maintain our reputation for having the best business schools in the world, we have to be able to attract the best and brightest in the world. Student mobility has become a big issue.”

This year, many of the most highly selective business schools in the U.S. are reporting substantial declines in MBA applications, largely as a result of fewer candidates from abroad. “Many schools got clobbered,” adds Boulding, who says the decline of internationals in U.S. business school applicant pools has become a major topic at gatherings of B-school deans.

As the new chairman of the board of the Graduate Management Admission Council, Boulding says he is making it his mission to speak out on immigration policy because of its long-term impact on U.S. competitiveness. “When you think about keeping the business school industry healthy, there are two things we need to pay attention to,” he says.


“One, wherever you go in the world, there is a steady drip of bad news about business. That it is immoral, greedy and slimey. Business continues to be attacked from all sides in all corners of the world. We have an obligation to show that business can be a force for good in the world. We need to think proactively about our collective reputation. People want meaning and purpose in their lives. If they perceive business as evil, the talent pipeline will dry up.

“Secondly, we need to be able to maintain student mobility. With the rise of nationalism, we need to make sure students can go to business school wherever they want. Erecting barriers to student mobility has severe consequences for the economy. Business school have the responsibility for producing talent for sustainable economic activity. My fear is tht we won’t be able to draw the best and brightest and help companies innovate and create value.”

Boulding says Fuqua’s recent 6.2% decline in applications to its full-time MBA program was largely driven by a drop in international applicants. He attributes the fall off at his school and other peer institutions to two major concerns, one a long simmering issue over H1b visas and one that is relatively new and related to the feelings that prompt the question about safety he keeps getting on his overseas trips.


“Outbound issues hve been perculating for many years,” he says. “It’s difficult for companies to hire internationals so we have seen a slow moving train of companies that are not long willing to go through that process and that has had a cumulative effect.

“What’s different now is the worsening of the outboard issues combined with concerns over whether an international student is going to be welcome here on the inbound side. Parents in India want to know if their children will be safe. That rhetoric has taken its toll and become a two-sided threat to students coming to the U.S. for business school.”

To counter the fears, Boulding says he is more deeply engaging the community so students and alumni have these conversations with prospective students. He’s also doubling down on events outside the U.S. to show “our commitment to maintain the pipelines of the best and brightest.” In welcoming the latest crop of MBA students to Fuqua last month, Boulding reminded them of the need for open communication and the value of the school’s openly supportive culture.

Incoming MBA students in the Class of 2020 at Duke Fuqua


“There has been a noticeable difference in the conversations I’m having,” he says. “Is it going to be safe is the new question. I try to reassure them, but our own commmunity has to recognize that questions are being asked. We have to be able to provide assurances that it is not only safe but welcoming.”

The question cuts deeply because the culture of Duke’s business school has been one of support and inclusion. At the heart of “Team Fuqua” is the belief that the more diverse the team, the better the results. Academic research, Boulding notes, has shown that diverse teams outperform ones in which members are all alike—if each member identifies with the team and has a sense of belonging. That is why he believes it is essential for business leaders to be able to unlock the power that lies in those differences.

The current political climate, he says, “raises and changes the stakes for business leaders to make themselves relevant. We are in an environment where there is so much polarization over race, gender, politics and religion. The fault lines are deep. It’s both a threat and an opportunity. The opportunity is for the business community to serve as an exemplar in bringing diverse people together with common purpose. But events leak into your work environment and can carry into the workplace. We have to step up and prepare people for this environment.”


For Boulding, a one-time marketing professor who counts among his former students Apple’s Tim Cook and Melinda Gates, it is an issue that runs deep. His parents were immigrants to the U.S., and he is a first generation American. His father escaped the slums of Liverpool, while his mother left Norway because her family faced limited prospects for a good life.

“A key to economic prosperity in this country is immigration,” he maintains. “Many of our Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants. Many of the most promising startups in Silicon Valley have been created by immigrants. We are now entering a period of time when everyone is talking about massive shifts in the world of work due to new technology.

“We are going to see a new generation of entrepreneurs create the jobs of the future. If that is not happening here, we risk becoming the economic dinosaur of the world. We’re ready to impact that transformation, but we have to have the talent to do it. Otherwise, we’re looking at a long-term slide toward irrelevance.”


Asked how optimistic he is for change, Boulding says he isn’t sure. On the one hand, he notes, Trump seems ready to listen to business leaders who are telling him that closing the doors to immigration will hurt the economy and make it more difficult for them to attract the necessary talent for growth. But Trump seems heavily invested in an anti-immigration stance.

“It would be very difficult for the current administration to reverse course because they have made immigration a flagship issue,” believes Boulding. “The President believes it helped get him elected and his base of support strongly believes that immigration is bad.

“I don’t think it (the decline in international applicants) is permanent, but the world has changed. For many years, the epicenter of great busines schools was in the U.S. Over time, you’ve seen the rise of more and more business schools options around the world. U.S. schools are no longer the only place to get a good business education. I do believe students will come back when the time is right for them.”


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