Business schools are weighing whether to allow admitted students to postpone enrollment by a year or two as colleges and universities across the U.S. grapple with whether and how to reopen campuses this fall.
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Much of the value of business schools' flagship M.B.A. programs comes from their in-person activities, such as networking with classmates, overseas trips and career fairs, some students say. A delayed start or deferral allows admitted students to preserve that on-campus experience for a later date.
M.B.A. programs, already on shaky ground amid years of falling application numbers, could face big tuition losses and trouble filling classes if masses of students defer. Schools could also lose room and board fees if some students take classes remotely.
Some of the highest-ranked business programs are taking different approaches. Harvard Business School, which exerts significant influence across higher education, recently said that it would grant deferrals to any admitted students who want them.
"Things have changed so much since they applied," said Chad Losee, Harvard's managing director of M.B.A. admissions. "As we debated these things we just felt pretty strongly that in this world of uncertainty we wanted to resolve as much of that as we could for our students."
Starting May 15, incoming students will have until June 1 to request a deferral, which will allow them to delay their regularly scheduled start date to another time in the next two-year period. Depending on how many choose to defer, HBS said it may admit students from its wait list to its class of 2022, which starts this fall. Harvard hasn't yet determined whether the fall semester will begin in person or online.
Because they will have the option to defer, HBS students who commit to enrolling in the fall may be less likely to demand tuition discounts or take issue if classes are moved online, said Graham Richmond, co-founder of admissions consulting firm Clear Admit.
An April survey of prospective business-school students found 38% of domestic students and 49% of international students are considering delaying applying to programs, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, a nonprofit that administers the GMAT exam, the standardized test for graduate business and management programs.
James Mutua, 26 years old, is finishing his final semester of law school at New York University from his home in Nairobi, Kenya. In March, he had started the application process to several top M.B.A. programs but has since put plans on hold, reasoning that starting a program this fall wouldn't be worthwhile if programs were remote and classes were conducted over Zoom.
"The whole essence of applying to a good business school in the U.S. is in-person classes and having many world views from many different people, " he said. "It defeats the purpose of getting it in the first place."
Yale School of Management and Columbia Business School said they don't plan to significantly change their existing deferral policies.
Before coronavirus, Yale already allowed a year's deferral to students who are unable to get to its New Haven campus. For example, if international students are unable to get visas in time, they would be granted an automatic deferral, said Bruce DelMonico, an assistant dean of admissions. Columbia has a narrow deferral policy that can be applied in certain cases, such as people who cannot separate from the military, a university spokesman said. Columbia will allow deferrals for admitted international students who can't secure a visa.
"We have not experienced a large demand for deferments," Columbia spokesman Chris Cashman said. "We believe our case-by-case approach should be sufficient."
Stanford Graduate School of Business plans for its new M.B.A. class to begin as planned in September, though the curriculum could have some online elements, a spokeswoman said. While the school typically grants deferrals only for medical reasons or military service, she said Stanford will consider deferrals for students whose personal circumstances have been directly impacted by the coronavirus, such as a sick family member.
The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business is telling noninternational students to apply for a deferral if they would like one. Deferrals will be granted based on the needs of the class, said Maryellen Reilly, deputy vice dean of the school's M.B.A. program. She declined to say which criteria would qualify a domestic student for deferral.
Georgetown's McDonough School of Business has opted to push back the start of its fall semester from July 27 to Sept. 8, a spokeswoman said. That should give all new students time to relocate and international students time to secure visas, she added.
Virginia's Darden School of Business is offering a delayed start option for a limited portion of its incoming class of 2022. The group will start first-year core classes in January 2021 and take classes into the summer.
"The delayed start option is intended for students who need additional time before they are able to fully join the class of 2022," the school said. "Many international students may not be able to secure a visa by August."
Write to Patrick Thomas at Patrick.Thomas@wsj.com