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A European MBA: Right for You?

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IESE in Barcelona, Spain

With the dollar reaching a 12-year high against the euro earlier this spring, much ink has been spilled about how the time is right to head to Europe for an MBA. Indeed, pursuing a graduate management education abroad can present a range of advantages for American students—with cost savings chief among them, especially given the recent relative strength of the dollar. That said, the decision of whether or not to head to one of Europe’s top business schools is a highly personal one best made after careful consideration of many factors that extend well beyond any savings tied to currency rates.

“Oh yes, I definitely did benefit from the exchange rate,” says Alexander Eldred, a Washington, DC native currently completing his MBA at France’s HEC Paris. As luck would have it, Eldred paid the bulk of HEC’s 52,000 euro tuition in March, right as the euro dipped to 1.05 to the dollar. Had he paid the entire tuition then, it would have amounted to $54,600 for a degree that just a year earlier would have run him $72,280. Add to that living expenses, which are similarly lower than they have been historically thanks to the exchange rate, and the savings stack up.  

Shorter Programs Mean Lower Opportunity Cost
As happy as he was for the savings, Eldred notes they were “really just a drop in the bucket” when you are talking about the cost of an MBA. Far more significant than any currency fluctuations is the shorter length of European MBA programs, many of which range from 12 to 18 months, compared to the two-year commitment far more common among U.S. programs. This contributes not only to lower overall tuition costs, but also to markedly reduced opportunity costs, since students return to the workforce more quickly.

Another North American student, Meaghan Kappel from Toronto, chose HEC in great part because of its 16-month program. “The program length is perfect,” she says, providing the ideal medium between North American two-year programs and accelerated 10-month programs, which she ultimately decided felt too short. “Sixteen months gives you enough time to think, but you aren’t losing too much of your salary and your professional experience, which was a big concern of mine coming into the program,” she says.

european mba
Spain’s ESADE Business School

Kirk Bullock, a southern Californian who decided to head to Barcelona for his MBA, was likewise drawn by a shorter program. “A huge reason I chose ESADE was the flexibility of its program,” he says. At ESADE, students can chose to complete the degree in 12, 15 or 18 months. Bullock began in September 2014 and will finish in September 2015.

“Not only is the cost of the degree less, but it also puts you back into the workforce making a salary sooner,” he says. “To me, the two-year programs just seemed too long—too long to be out of the workforce, too long to be away from my network,” he says. An additional advantage, he adds, was a more intense, focused experience. “The networking that you do is much more intense, you make great friends and connections and you work them the entire time,” he says.

Diversity, Diversity, Diversity
Ask American students why they chose a European MBA program, and you will undoubtedly hear diversity among their top responses. “What is great about HEC is how incredibly diverse it is,” says Eldred. Ninety percent of HEC’s students are international, drawn from more than 40 different countries. This exposure to different cultures, languages, experiences and leadership styles is invaluable, including in the eyes of recruiters, he says. “What a lot of firms are looking for is people who can play nicely in the sandbox,” he notes, skills that naturally emerge from such diverse situations.

“Everyone touts diversity, but at a lot of places that are supposedly diverse, you have a majority student body and then you have the others,” Eldred continues. “Here, no one is even close to a majority—the French only make up 10 percent,” he continues. “If you only talk to people from your own country, you won’t have very many friends,” he states matter of factly, since there are never more than four or five students in a single class from the same country. “You are forced to get out and meet people from elsewhere and work with them,” he says. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t speak four different languages.”

Bullock says the same about ESADE. “If you go to Berkeley and you sit in a class, diverse means you are still going to have at least 50 percent of people being American,” he says. Not so at European schools. “We have maybe 10 percent Spanish in our class.” Professors, too, come from all over the world, each tailoring courses toward their cultural preference, which further extends the diversity of experiences MBA students encounter.

Kappel, too, touts the incredible value of the peer-to-peer learning that takes place in classes with such true diversity. “Every single class at HEC involves at least one group assignment,” she says. Her very first group included one Canadian, one Indian, one Japanese, one Chinese and one Moroccan, she recalls. “When you are forced to work as a group and you all come from a different country, each of you leads in your way—or, as importantly, learns when not to lead.”

The Role That Language Plays
Though the language of instruction at most leading European business schools is English, some Americans choose European MBAs to obtain or improve proficiency in another language. This was very much the case for Jenna Meulemans, a student at Spain’s IESE Business School. Though Meulemans studied Spanish in junior high and high school and had worked and studied abroad, she was not fluent before moving to Barcelona. At IESE, she took part in an accelerated language course before classes began and has continued to seek out opportunities to strengthen her Spanish with classmates and friends. Because IESE’s campus is right in Barcelona, day-to-day life provides plenty of opportunity to practice as well, she says.

Bullock, for his part, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had never left the United States before heading to ESADE. But coming from a career in hospitality in southern California and hoping to ultimately return there, the opportunity to learn the language was a major factor in his decision of where to study. “In my industry, Spanish is a huge bonus, and it is such a prominent spoken language,” he says, adding that language proficiency will open up possibilities for him not only in Spain or returning to the West Coast, but also in the majority of Latin America, Central America and other parts of the United States.

He has really focused on the language, taking classes provided through the school, working with private tutors and speaking with friends. “My Spanish is finally to the point where I have proficiency,” he says. Still, his hope upon graduation is to remain in Barcelona and work in the hospitality industry, and for that he knows he still needs greater mastery. So he’ll keep working on it.

european mba
France’s HEC Paris

At HEC, where students live and take classes on a campus outside of Paris, it’s not actually essential to master French, according to several students there. The language that everyone has in common is English, so much discussion both in class and outside of it defaults to that. Having said that, you must speak French if you hope to work in France after graduating, says the quadrilingual Eldred, who speaks English, French, German and Chinese.

“Speaking French is really a prerequisite for having a fruitful career in France,” he says, which is no different than in the United States, he points out. “Speaking the local language is normally a pre-requisite for employment in most countries.” Formerly a spice trader in China and an ingredient buyer for Mars in Tennessee, Eldred does intend to remain in France after graduating, targeting operations management jobs in Paris in the food or transportation industries.

Potential Drawbacks of a European MBA
Students who set their sights on working in Europe after completing their MBA should be aware that European salaries are generally lower than in the United States—with the United Kingdom, and London in particular, an exception. The degree costs less, but your earning power coming out, if you remain in France or Spain for example, will also likely be lower.

The cost of living, though, is also lower. “I will probably make less in Barcelona than I would if I returned to the United States,” concedes Meulemans. “But I have an incredible apartment here that costs a third of what I would have in New York, where it would be much smaller,” she adds.

Bullock takes the same view. “Yes, the salary potential of going back to the States is much higher,” he says. “The cost of living in Europe is lower, however. Not enough to balance the equation equally, but it does help.”

All of the Americans interviewed for this story hope to remain in Europe after graduation, though a couple indicated they may return to the States at a later date or as a back-up plan. They each acknowledge that brand recognition for European schools among U.S. employers could pose something of an obstacle to students hoping to return to the States immediately upon graduation.

“It is a small disadvantage,” says Bullock. “I do have to take the next step of explaining to an employer that ESADE is a top-ranked school,” he says. “Back in the States, if I say, ‘Berkeley,’ they know Berkeley.” But once the caliber of the school is established, he finds it’s much less of a barrier than some people might perceive. The value of the brand within Spain and in Europe more generally, meanwhile, is enormous, he adds.

Eldred says much the same of HEC Paris. “I think it is completely surmountable,” he says. “The HEC name has enormous value in France—here, people’s jaws drop when you say you go to HEC.” Outside of France, there is no question that the street value of the HEC name is not as high as that of some U.S. schools, he says. Still, he’s not concerned. “The people who are hiring for the types of jobs you will want coming from HEC will have heard of it,” he says.

The schools are also working actively to elevate their brand among U.S. audiences and enhancing career services resources for students seeking work in the U.S. after graduation, the current students say.

“It is starting to change,” Eldred says of HEC’s recognition outside of Europe. Things like the school’s number one ranking among European schools in the Economist this past year don’t hurt, he points out. But he also attributes the shift to efforts by the school itself and to a greater number of North Americans pursuing European MBAs. “It is an overnight process? No. But it is changing,” he says.

But make no mistake, living in another country is not always easy, the American students say. “It can definitely be challenging,” says Bullock. “Adjusting to the culture is hard, especially for Americans,” he says of Spain. “Things are much more relaxed here in terms of what we are used to, and there is much less convenience,” he says.

Though she wouldn’t trade her experience for anything, Meulemans says that being so far from friends and family has sometimes been difficult. “Especially when you are doing something as intense as an MBA,” she says. “It’s not like being in New York, and getting to fly home to Chicago for a weekend when you want to,” she says.

Not Right for Everyone—but for Some, Just Right
Should the short-term savings presented by currency fluctuations propel Americans who’ve never before considered getting an MBA abroad to drop everything and start packing their bags? No, say most American students studying in Europe right now.

But if you are a global citizen of the world—or are ready and willing to work hard to become one—the diverse classrooms, peer-to-peer learning opportunities, shorter programs and global networks presented by European business schools may be for you. If so, depending on where the dollar goes from here, you may save a little dough as well.

Still wondering whether a European MBA might be right for you? The MBA Tour is hosting a conference in New York City on Monday, June 22nd, exclusively for applicants considering European MBA programs.