The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), administrator of the Graduate Management Admissions Test -- the GMAT --found that applicants to two-year MBA programs at U.S. business schools declined by 53% in 2016 at schools it surveyed. Full-time two-year, part-time and flexible MBAs all took a hit, as did MBAs in accounting. The report's findings, released last month, are based on responses from 335 business schools worldwide, representing 872 grad programs that received 440,000 applications for 2016.

The Reston, Va.-based GMAC found that at the same time, streamlined programs such as the one-year executive MBA and online MBA programs had gains of 43% in 2015. The relatively new online degree programs grew for the second consecutive year.

Sangeet Chowfa, the GMAC's president, pictured a rosier overall scenario, stating that the "[b]usiness degrees continue to be one of the most sought-after educational credentials," pointing to the creation of more specialized programs such the MBA in data analytics, which demonstrated growth as did MBAs in management and finance. "With the competitive landscape changing, applicants have more options from which to choose," creating a mixed picture but, on balance, a more uplifting future outlook for business schools.

Meanwhile, the highest rated schools saw an increase in applicants. Matt Symonds, a co-director of Atlanta, Georgia-based Fortuna Admissions, a business school admissions consultancy, described a "flight to quality," with the U.S. market fragmenting between the top tier schools and the also-rans, a scenario noted in U.S. law schools as well, where second- and third-tier players have been under pressure as the number of applicants drop while those that do apply are likely to submit marginal credentials. The time and money needed to complete a two-year degree is making the traditional MBA prohibitive for many people—and contributing to a movement to one-year and online programs.

Europe was an area of business school growth in 2016; 65% of European graduate programs reported an increase in applications.

GMAC reported that merit scholarships were the most common form of tuition assistance offered by grad school business management programs, reducing the dependence on student loans. Most offer financial aid, including 78% of full-time MBA programs. Employer-based tuition remains strong. Two-thirds of programs (68%) report that their incoming students receiving employer-based tuition reimbursement this year will be similar to 2015 numbers.