HEC Paris MBA Approaches ‘Optimal Size’

Students meet with representatives from global consulting firms on the campus of HEC Paris. Marc Ethier photo

HEC Paris is growing by leaps and bounds. In the past year, the school received more than 2,200 applications, about 800 more than the previous cycle, and used the opportunity to admit 391 candidates, up from 232 the year before, enrolling 235, up from about 140. They did this while actually reducing their acceptance rate by 4.5% to 17.5% — second-lowest among elite European programs and lower than Wharton, Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, or Dartmouth Tuck.

All part of the plan, says Andrea Masini, associate dean in charge of HEC Paris’ MBA program. In an interview with Poets&Quants on the school campus just outside Paris, Masini says that in two years, the cohort of incoming MBAs will number 300 — a number that represents “critical mass” for recruiters.

“Take Bain,” Masini says of the international mega-consultancy. “They’re coming this week or next week on campus with the HR directors of all their global offices and their global head of recruitment. They wouldn’t do that if the size of the MBA was too small. They would say in terms of numbers, out of 200 MBAs maybe 150, maybe fewer is interested in consulting, and maybe not all them in that particular country. So the effort would not be worth it. Whereas if you have about 300 students talking to employers, it is the kind of size that would allow us to have that visibility, that impact. 

“At the same time, we do not want to become a mass producer of MBAs. So we do not want to grow to 1,000, because we want to maintain the customization intimacy of the program, which is one of the important selling points. We say 300 is the optimal size given this goal of keeping customization at the highest possible level while at the same time competing in the top league and being visible for recruiters, and obviously growing the size of the alumni mentor ranks.”


Andrea Masini. File photo

As Masini speaks, downstairs in the main building of the pastoral campus about 26 kilometers southwest of the Paris city center, a consulting job fair is buzzing. It’s a monthly affair at which all the big employers of MBAs — McKinsey, Bain, BCG, PwC — and some of the smaller ones — Parthenon, LEK, Oliver Wyman — pitch themselves to students in suits, and vice versa. Lots of free pens are passed out; and, presumably, lots of contacts are made that later turn into job opportunities. In HEC’s employment report from 2017 (the most recent available; the school’s 2018 report won’t be available until December), consulting was third as an industry destination for graduating MBAs at 18%, behind finance (21%) and tech (19%). 

One floor above the thrum of activity, Masini speaks of the past — of the just-concluded three-year journey that included a major curriculum review and the introduction of new specializations in digital innovation and sustainability — and the future, particularly his concerns about there viability of the HEC MBA program and the students who emerge from it. Many of HEC’s peers are steering away from the “flat market” of full-time MBA programs into specialized master’s offerings or online MBAs or other modes of delivery, but Masini’s school has seen double-digit growth in the number of MBA applications — and he wants to keep the trajectory skyward.

“The MBA remains a degree that gives a very solid basis, right?” he tells P&Q. “Every employer who hires an MBA graduate from HEC Paris knows that this guy or this woman will know extremely well the fundamentals of finance, operations, strategy, marketing. So that means that whatever my background is, I can have a credible conversation with my managers. If I’m, let’s say, a COO, I will be able to have a credible, meaningful conversation with my CFO, with my chief technological officer. So that layer has to be there, remain there. 

“At the same time, you have be very quick in adapting your curriculum to respond to the needs of the market. That’s the idea of an MBA degree we have here.”


Besides the growth underway in its MBA program, HEC Paris is hoping to use big shifts in the graduate business education landscape as springboards up the rankings (HEC was the No. 2 school in Europe in the latest Economist ranking). The most important shift right now, Masini says: digitization — “clearly a disruption factor” where the top-tier MBA programs are separating from the middle and bottom of the market. 

Digitization is happening too fast for many lower-tier schools to keep up, he says. But at the top of the market, “where we are hopefully,” there is less impact. “Students want to have contacts with their colleagues, they want to experience the magic that takes place in the classroom where we have 40 different nationalities coming together and discussing,” Masini says. 

“That being said, digitalization today means that you need to give more flexibility to the program. So even if you’re not completely disrupted by this, you need to embrace little by little digital innovation to be able to adapt your program. In five years from now, maybe I will have a different view, but we have to keep an eye on the digitalization of the industry, knowing that it can happen even faster than what it is now. Of course at the school level we’re taking action to be a player, to be a leader in that space with new courses, new programs, and we have a new online master’s in innovation and entrepreneurship. In the MBA we have online electives that students can take to make their curriculum even more flexible than what it is. And that of course creates new challenges.

“In five years from now, in those countries where growth is happening, I have a personal ambition. We created a new specialization in sustainability. I’d like — beyond all our rhetoric — to be recognized as change makers, as responsible leaders. So I’d like our MBAs to be recognized as people who have confidence, who are able to have impact knowing about consequences. I think that it is something that we’re trying to inject into the program.”


Diversity is a strength of HEC’s MBA program, as Masini points out, with dozens of nationalities represented in the classroom. But in one key way, the school is not as diverse as some of its peers: HEC struggles to attract women. Last year the school enrolled 34% women; this fall that number ticked upward to 35%. Compare that to London Business School’s 40%, or the 40% or greater at a handful of elite U.S. schools like Harvard, Northwestern Kellogg, Columbia, Dartmouth Tuck, and Yale SOM. 

In fact, with a few exceptions European business schools seem to struggle to attract women to their MBA programs, at least in comparison to their U.S. counterparts. Why?

“One reason is that from a job market point of view, looking historically, companies’ management paths were perceived to be something more for men than for women,” Masini says. “And of course we’re trying to break that perception as much as we can, because we do need great women leaders because they bring a slightly different preceptive, much more nuanced. They’re great leaders and of course having a class with 50/50 balance would be my dream. And we’re working hard, and I’m not saying that it’s impossible. We’ll get there at some point. It certainly is a priority to increase that percentage, but I think the business world could also help us. If I had more female applications I would have more women in the program. So we’re trying to do whatever we can to promote the MBA or management education at the earliest stages.”

HEC’s initiatives to attract more women to its MBA include new core courses that deal with diversity, particularly gender balance. “So we’re helping the environment to become more welcoming to a larger female population,” Masini says. “We’re adding specific management seminars to help women negotiate when they have salary negotiations, when they have interviews. 

“At the MBA level, we are really promoting initiatives to make life easier for women, including having a flexible curriculum if they’re pregnant. This year we had a couple of participants who gave birth to their babies during the program. We adapted the program so that they could stop, give birth, stay away for four months, and start again four months later joining the new cohort in a perfectly flexible manner. We discussed with them how to best do it in order to minimize the disruption and we even had a participant breastfeeding her baby here in one of the rooms. One of the rooms had to be adapted for that reason. 

“Then on the school level, we are launching initiatives to also increase the number of women in the faculty. That is important because as a female student you appreciate the fact that you see a lot of female faculty.”


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