MBA's in Madrid? The Rise of the European B-School

Shorter, cheaper programs and demand for international experience are two reasons business schools across Europe are flourishing.

By Jennifer Fishbein

A student browses through books in the library at INSEAD's satellite campus in Singapore.

A student browses through books in the library at INSEAD's satellite campus in Singapore.

European MBA programs may have traditionally lacked the brand recognition of their US counterparts, but that's changing fast. The continent's increasingly dynamic business environment, improvements to curricula, and growing corporate demand for employees with international experience are attracting top-notch candidates from all over the world. In addition, most Europe management programs are cheaper, shorter, smaller, and more diverse than their US rivals, which is drawing a growing number of American students to studies in the Old World.

Applications from the US to INSEAD, an elite French business school with campuses in Fontainebleau and Singapore, grew 20 percent in the past year and the school's 2008 enrollment of Americans grew nearly 24 percent since 2007, to 73 students. Barcelona-based IESE Business School received 32 percent more applications from the US this year than last, and expects to enroll 35 Americans in the next class -- an increase of 60 percent. Another Barcelona-based institution, ESADE, has fielded so many inquiries from Americans about its full-time MBA programs that it has begun encouraging them to wait until next year to apply.

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INSEAD's dean, Frank Brown, says ever more young people are recognizing the value of an MBA but don't want to spend two years earning one -- the length of most US programs. Others credit the US recession.

"Probably, the economic fear is making people think that it's a good year for education," says Olaya Garcia, ESADE's director of full-time MBA programs.

Bargains Despite a Weak Dollar

Despite the euro's steep rise against the dollar, which raises the cost of European programs for US students, prospective applicants are still heading across the Atlantic for a good deal. Nicole Baum, a 27-year-old Chicagoan studying at SDA Bocconi in Milan, one of Europe's top 10 business schools, said she turned down NYU's Stern School of Business in part because tuition cost 30 percent more there.

The average tuition at the top 10 European schools is less than $73,000, vs. $86,600 at Harvard Business School, and about $95,000 at Wharton. Only one elite European program costs more than the Wharton degree: IESE's 18-month full-time MBA -- long, by European standards -- at €64,900 ($102,000). Tuition at the least expensive school surveyed by BusinessWeek, Vlerick Leuven Gent in Belgium, runs just €17,000 ($26,000).

Furthermore, MBA students are increasingly looking to pursue social justice through business, and many European schools have responded with a wealth of new courses on corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, and doing business in developing countries. In 2004, Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid, another elite institution, founded the Center for Eco-Intelligent Management to teach sustainable business practices. That same year Oxford opened the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which provides five MBA scholarships a year.

Economic and Geographic Diversity

The international mix of students at European schools also attracts applicants. Just 14 percent of 188 full-time MBA students at HEC-Paris, one of France's elite grandes écoles, are French, and just 5 percent of 215 full-time MBA students at Oxford hail from Great Britain -- figures typical of top European programs. By contrast, 63 percent of the 900-strong MBA class at Harvard Business School and 55 percent of Wharton's 800 MBA students are American.

Most of the 25 European programs in this BusinessWeek report enroll fewer than 100 students a year, making class diversity even more pronounced. The 50 full-time students at Vlerick Leuven Gent represent 30 nationalities. The Grenoble Graduate School of Business' 26 full-time MBA students at its French campus hail from 13 countries, including Azerbaijan and Moldova.

To build on their growing reputations, many European institutions are now opening satellite campuses in other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East and Asia. Many have launched executive training programs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and some have merged with foreign schools or built business programs abroad. About a third of MBA students at INSEAD study at the school's campus in Singapore, where ESSEC, another grande école, also has a campus.


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