In quest for an MBA, Americans cross the Atlantic

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Dana Tidikis's European experience may explain something about the growing strength of the continent's business schools.

A New Yorker and a master of business administration (MBA) student at Spain's IESE - an international business school with campuses in Barcelona and Madrid - she says she chose to study in Europe because business schools in the United States just can't offer the same global perspective.

"European schools offer such diversified student bodies with various cultural perspectives that one is forced to confront cultural issues and reevaluate some of the basic assumptions we make each day," she says. "I'd be less exposed to this enriching growth experience in a US school."

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Studying in Europe, of course, also makes it easier for US students to pick up skills in a language other than English. But for Brian Abdelhadi, an American who graduated from DePaul University in Chicago and cofounded an Internet lottery before heading to Spain to work toward an MBA at IESE, the appeal of graduate school in Europe is far more than just linguistic.

"One thing that is immediately apparent of schools in Europe is the little importance given to grades," he says. "Students aren't as competitive among themselves, and going to a school with a truly international student body opens your eyes. Many Americans are in great need of that."

Across Europe, business schools are witnessing an increase in the number of applications from the US. While some US business schools are bemoaning a reduction in student applications, demand for places at several European MBA programs has reached an all-time high.

Last year, for example - even as applications to the University of Michigan's renowned MBA program fell by nearly 25 percent - IESE reported a 60 percent surge in applications.

In part, European administrators ascribe the heightened interest in their programs to applicants' need for an edge in a competitive job market. Whenever the world economy slows down, they say, the importance of a postgraduate business degree increases.

"MBA students have to think ahead to what the economy will look like when they graduate," says Tim Jenkinson, an MBA director at Oxford University's Said Business School. "In fact, applications to MBA programs tend to go up in recessions, as the opportunity cost of taking the course is often lower."

European MBA programs are also appealing to some US students who like the idea of a full-time program that can be completed within a year, says Phil Bowers, full-time MBA program director at the University of Edinburgh Management School. While there is currently a trend in the US toward pursuing an MBA either part time at night or in a grueling combination with a full-time job, some Americans prefer the option of taking a career break for a year, points out Mr. Bowers.

And then, he adds, there's the international dimension.

"Most European business schools are much more international than their US counterparts," he says. "This forces students to come to grips not only with different cultures, but with the problems created by linguistic difficulties."

Despite America's reputation as a heterogeneous society, cultural diversity is an area where most US programs just can't compete with the European ones, says Bowers. "The USA is undoubtedly one of the cultural melting pots of the world, but it now has a very strong cultural identity of its own, and it is therefore very difficult for Americans to gain this cultural sensitivity within the USA."

Tuition costs at European business schools are not lower across the board, but there are bargains available for those willing to shop around. While some programs cost as much as $120,000, there are also schools that charge as little as $15,000.

But American students should consider other factors before heading overseas for an MBA.

Accreditation and rankings weigh heavily with most prospective students. However, experts warn, accreditation is very different from ranking. Many students assume that an institution that is highly rated in newspaper and magazine surveys must be a good one. However, some educators point out, such listings may enhance prestige but do not guarantee quality.

"The most important thing is that prospective students know that an outside body has carefully examined the program and pronounced it as passing its quality standards," says Peter Calladine, the education service manager for the Association of MBAs - the umbrella organization for more than 200 MBA programs across Europe.

But Prof. Richard Painter, dean of the business school at Staffordshire University in central England, dismisses accreditation as an elitist marketing tool.

"Accreditation requires the satisfying of certain criteria and the ticking off of certain boxes," he says. "This is elitist in the sense that it excludes institutions that do not wish to conform to these norms and practices. So non-accreditation does not mean that other MBAs are not equally or even better [able] to satisfy student ambitions."

Neither accreditation nor ranking necessarily matters to potential employers, argues Tim Hird, a business development manager at Robert Half Management Resources - an international recruitment agency for MBA graduates. "When we look to recruit MBAs, the individual's softer skills - the ability to work under pressure, communicate, and influence - are far more important than which business school they attended," he says.

Employers are increasingly looking for personal qualities beyond the tool-kit full of excellent skills that a top MBA will give, says David Simpson, a senior official for the Ivy league-like London Business School. "It's essential that students be fully immersed in a collaborative learning environment where they have the opportunity to interact with other experienced students from different cultures."

European schools, he says, "have worked hard not just to bring together students from different regions so that no one culture or nationality dominates; they have also made sure that the structure of the programs allows necessary interaction."

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