Europe: The Next MBA Frontier for Americans?

As tuition in the US increases and visa policies strain employment prospects, some students are looking to places like Europe for their MBA.

After seven years of working in market research between New York and London, Virginia-native Margaret Hoffecker started considering an MBA to expand her career horizons.
An MBA had never really been in her plans, but after talking to a couple of bosses who’d gone to London Business School, the idea starting sinking in. And when she seriously started researching programs, she looked directly to Europe.

“I actually never considered American business schools—it just wasn’t something I was interested in,” Hoffecker says. “Having grown up overseas, I think I gravitate toward environments with more diversity.”

Hoffecker is now at HEC Paris, one of the better-known business schools in Europe that, like many others on the continent, are gaining visibility and appeal to US students looking for something outside of the traditional MBA path. Employers are also increasingly look to hire candidates with a more diverse experience; in a recent study by the Financial Times, employers pointed to the ability to work with a wide variety of people as the most important skill they looked for in management candidates.

Combined with more flexible visa policies and shorter programs, an education abroad could give US programs a run for their money. According to surveys by the Graduate Management Admission Council, more prospective students are interested in studying outside their country of citizenship for their MBA.

“What we see here is an increase in the number and quality of applications, particularly from the US,” says Andrea Masini, dean of HEC’s MBA program. “Over past couple of years, we saw American students who were not only above the bar, but better than predecessors—and I’m sure that some of those candidates who in the past would look primarily at US schools, are now looking beyond the States.”

European MBA appeal

As Hoffecker noted, European MBA programs tend to recruit far more international students than business schools in the US.92 percent of HEC’s MBA class is international, with students from more than 52 nationalities; Harvard Business School, in comparison, admitted just 35 percent international students for its MBA Class of 2019. ESMT, a business school in Berlin, is 95 percent international; only 10 to 15 percent speak German, according to Rick Doyle, head of marketing at ESMT.

“Germany is coming into its own in the MBA market these past years,” Doyle says, noting that while the country had never traditionally been the “go-to” location for MBAs, the launch of ESMT in 2002 kickstarted the competition between private schools and MBA degrees in Germany.

“Before, if you didn’t have a PhD, you couldn’t have a c-title position in Germany,” Doyle says. “German students always wanted to go somewhere else, to have an international experience. But we had a German student who recently said she’d wanted to study in Germany because she wanted to see how international students saw German business; so it was an interesting bit of reverse psychology.”

This element has held a lot of appeal for US students looking to gain a more diverse exposure in their MBA education.

“For me that’s the most enriching thing—it’s teaching you to work with people who are just not like you, which is just the reality of the world,” Hoffecker says. “We all have totally different backgrounds, and I know that’s how business school is, but I don’t think the international aspect comes through as much in the US.”

Cost and duration are also huge factors that differentiate programs; US programs are typically two years, and can easily cost over $150,000 122,610), while top European programs range from a year to 16 months. HEC is 16 months at a cost of €62,000 ($75,850), while INSEAD has a 15-month and 21-month option at a cost of roughly €80,000 ($97,870). An MBA at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is taught in English, is around €72,000 ($88,080) for the one-year program.

“For me, value for money was big driver; in the US, you’re out of the workforce for two years, and that’s a huge loss of wages,” Hoffecker points out. “If you really want to get a solid education and get on with your career, a shorter program like the ones in the EU can be a really good option. What I’m paying for my entire program is what US students pay for a year, and it’s two years.”

European MBA students also tend to be older, with more experience. At ESMT, the average age is 30, with six years of work experience, says Doyle. The average age of HEC applicants is 29, and the school typically takes students with between three to six years of work experience, according to Masini.

Video: The MBA Experience in Europe

“This implies that the exchange and dynamics in class are different,” he notes. “You come here to learn from faculty, but also your peers.”

And it’s not just Germany and France; Americans are gravitating to MBA programs all over the continent. Business schools that are popular among Americans include Spain’s IE Business School and Esade Business School, IMD and University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Vlerick Business School in Belgium. And of course, the UK, with its English-speaking environment and globally-known business schools, is consistently popular.

Post-MBA employment in Europe

Many students are able to find opportunities in Europe after graduation, with visa regulations in places like Germany being much more flexible than those in the US. Doyle points out that ESMT graduates, for instance, can easily receive an 18-month residence permit after graduation, and a two-year work permit upon signing a contract, without company sponsorship. Past school graduates have gone on to work in startups in Germany—where there’s a burgeoning technology scene—and other positions in the finance, marketing, media, and corporate world, as well as at smaller companies in fields like sustainability. But most alumni tend to stay in Europe, Doyle says.

Likewise, Masini says that roughly half of its graduates end up staying in the European Union for work. HEC’s curriculum takes a more generalist approach than other schools—which often lean toward certain niches like finance or entrepreneurship—so its graduates are placed across a rather broad spectrum of industries and positions. “We don’t like to put all our eggs in one basket,” Masini says.

Non-EU citizens who want to work in Europe after their MBA should note that each country has its own visa policies.    

So what are some things to research and contemplate when deciding where to do an MBA?

“Think about where you want to end up! That’s one of the biggest considerations,” Hoffecker recommends. “I would also consider how valuable your time is. Do you want to take two years off from work? Can you afford to do that, or do you want something a little more accelerated?”

As Doyle says, it always comes down to individual decision. “Maybe there’s a personal relationship to someone from the country, or the student has worked for a company from that particular country,” he says.

“Quite often someone just wants something different; sometimes we get US students who’ve left the States for the first time, and want to explore.”

For Hoffecker, HEC was an obvious choice, and the only school she applied to. She acknowledges it’s not for everyone, but says that her background—a childhood in Riyadh and India—played a large role in her decision to go abroad. If Europe does end up being your choice, she says, be prepared to go a bit out of your comfort zone.

“I’d advise that you kind of have to be open to learning from people who are not like you, and your opinion is not going to be the dominant one,” she says. “And you’re going to end up with a global network at the end of your time here—you might butt heads along the way, but if you’re open to the diversity, then it will be open to you.”

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