"We're certainly seeing an increase in applications this year," said Jeff Heebner of the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "Some people say now is a good time to take time out to get a degree. It may be a reason for the increase."
A June 2002 Graduate Management Admission Council report says a majority of business schools saw increases in applications for that school year. The report cites the weak economy as the main reason.
Duke, University of California at Los Angeles, Columbia and Northwestern all reported 75-percent increases in the numbers of applications for the 2002 school year.
As business schools from Harvard to Stanford sift through thousands of applications for the ingoing class of 2003, all indicators point to a repeat of last year's trend.
"Demand for an MBA education remains high here, as well as at other schools," said spokesperson Jay Chrepta at Harvard School of Business.
Harvard reported approximately 8,000 applications for 900 places during each of the previous three years. For 2004, the school received more than 10,000 applications.
If the weak economy is driving some into school, it may also keep them away.
"While some people apply because they're unemployed and it feels safe, others feel that this is not the time they want to be in school because it removes them from the marketplace," said Cherie Scricca, a dean at Smith.
Smith has also seen increases in applications for their part-time MBA program during the past three years.
The poor economy has created a buyer's market for employers, forcing them to decrease their recruiting at MBA schools, leaving graduates feeling the pinch.
"At the time of graduation for the class of 2002, only about 75 percent of the students in the class had job offers," said Roman Velikson, a 2002 MBA graduate from the University of Chicago. "This year, the market has gotten even worse, companies are cutting back on hiring, and job prospects don't look any better than last year."
According to GMAC, the average employer will hire three new MBA's in 2003. Thirty-one percent of those employers indicated that they would not offer signing bonuses -- indicating a huge shift of hiring practices during the high-tech boom.
"During the boom a few years ago, a lot of people in business school started to drop out when they saw the money they could make," said Smith MBA student Christine Briscoe. "After the boom, I think a lot of people starting going back to the traditional route."
Indeed, bonus figures for 2002 were expected to drop by 25 percent to a total of $7.5 billion, down from $10 billion in 2001 and $14.3 billion in 2000, the New York Daily News reported.
"Overall average salaries and compensation packages for MBA's have decreased, and fewer people are being hired into industries that paid the highest wages," said Tom Kozicki, Director of the MBA Resource Center at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
The university has also seen an increase in application levels for their MBA program. Kozicki cited the downturn in recruitment efforts due to the downturn in high-tech, consulting, investment banking sectors.
While those fields are still drawing a lot of business school graduates, MBAs are increasingly heading for more diverse directions, into fields such as biotech, medical devises, defense, and security, according to recruitment experts.
Additionally, more graduates are taking marketing or sales jobs -- jobs that may have been shunned in the boon of the 1990s, says Tom Johnston of Worldbrdige Partners recruiting firm.
MBA grads are also venturing out on their own as entrepreneurs, said Jeremy Shinewald, a student at University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.
"I've noticed that people are being a little more entrepreneurial. They're thinking 'I don't want to fight with 300 people for a job that I don't want all that badly'," he said.
Code Cubitt, an 2002 MBA graduate, headed toward the entrepreneurial route after the dot-com boom went bust because of a "lack of options."
"There are so many MBA's from 'Tier 1' applying en masse for the lowliest positions," he said. "I knew I was going to do this eventually, I thought, 'Why not now, since I'm not doing anything else?'"
The MBA is generally regarded as a program that helps people change careers, or gain work experience through an internship. Employers look for those valuable points on résumés, as well as a history of leadership and increasing job responsibility.
Still, Johnston is telling MBAs to lower their expectations, indicating that promises than an MBA will help people double their salary in 2 years are a little overblown.
But an MBA still holds value for employers and students alike.
"The weak economy hasn't influenced my opinion about getting an MBA," Velikson said.
She now works for Morgan Stanley in London.
"I was a career changer, and I now feel that I am in a much better position for the rest of my career than I was before the MBA."
"There are still great opportunities for great people -- MBA students have to be focused and work hard. There's just more competition out there, Kozicki said.