At HEC Paris & Other European B-Schools, U.S. & Canadian Apps Are On The Rise

HEC Paris' campus

HEC Paris: A top destination for North American MBA students in 2021 — and perhaps beyond

Are more North Americans considering an MBA in Europe? That’s what new data from at least one leading European business school strongly suggests.

HEC Paris — recently named the top European business school for the third straight year by The Financial Times — reports that 21% of its September 2021 MBA intake hails from the United States or Canada. In pre-pandemic times, that number has historically been between 10% and 11%.

Why has HEC Paris drawn so much interest from the other side of the Atlantic? Andrea Masini, the school’s associate dean of MBA programs, says his school has some obvious advantages: location, for one, in one of the world’s great cities, which also stands as a gateway to the European market, a fact that appeals to candidates looking to work in Europe post-MBA. Moreover, like most Euro programs, HEC’s MBA — at 16 months — is a shorter time commitment than most U.S. programs.

Perhaps most pertinently: HEC Paris, like its neighbors across Europe, costs considerably less than comparable B-schools in the U.S. “I think if you look at the total cost, if you add up tuition, fees, plus expenses, plus opportunity costs of not working for 24 months, cost at an American top school is probably twice as expensive,” Masini says.

EARLY SIGNS OF A TRANS-ATLANTIC TURNABOUT?

HEC Paris Associate Dean of MBA Programs Andrea Masini

Even as HEC Paris and another school, Spain’s ESADE, report big jumps in North American applications, other Euro B-schools, like Spain’s IESE and London Business School, have seen more modest upticks. But whatever the rate of increase, the timing is interesting: The data show that the shift is occurring as graduate business programs in the United States are finally opening their doors to more international students after years of tightening restrictions.

Could the cross-current traffic from North America to Europe be the result of greater competition for seats in U.S. MBA classrooms, because of a reversal of Trump-era immigration policies and easing of pandemic travel restrictions?

The numbers are compelling. A dozen of the top 26 U.S. business schools reported double-digit increases in foreign students this fall, and eight schools reported that internationals make up 40% or more of their total MBA populations. Last year only two schools could make that claim. Altogether, all but three of the leading B-schools in the U.S. saw increases in their international student populations; the other three were even. The average increase was 8.7 percentage points, with the biggest occurring at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business: 19 percentage points, from 20% to 39%. Also notable: The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which saw its internationals grow from 19% to 36%.

Recent survey data from the Graduate Management Admission Council corroborates the rebound in international student applications at U.S. schools. See page 2 for a table of international student percentages at the leading U.S. business schools in 2020 compared to 2021. 

SELLING POINTS

Speaking to Poets&Quants this month, Andrea Masini acknowledges that HEC’s North American-heavy September cohort is “a bit exceptional,” and January is shaping up to be “more back to normal, but still way more than what we used to have historically.” He says he expects around 12% to 13% North Americans to be the norm going forward.

“It is growing steadily over time,” Masini says. “September was exceptional for a number of reasons. I believe that the market is very sensitive to the economy — so when the economy bounces back, there are more candidates interested in doing it.”

It helped HEC’s case that last summer when students were committing to a program and paying fees, the school located just outside Paris was one of a few in Europe offering in-person classes, mostly in a hybrid/blended format. “I think that attracted a lot of Americans,” Masini says. Moreover, though European B-schools are cheaper than those in there U.S., they still offer generous scholarships based on merit. “Regardless of nationality, gender, we do have also a specific scholarship for certain particular applicants,” Masini says, “but in general, each and every candidate can apply. And scholarships can go up to 50% of tuition fees, a significant benefit.”

He says the school’s student diversity is also a big selling point.

“If you look at the Europe, as the content is pretty much the same as in the United States, the level of diversity in the exposure to different countries and culture is amazing,” he says. “We have pretty much the same size and therefore schools that combine academic excellence in international reputation with that diversity are seen as an opportunity. It’s not uncommon to have American candidates say, ‘I choose HEC because I want to work in France, maybe in Germany, maybe in Spain,’ and then maybe they go back to the United States, maybe after five years having had these international experiences.”

CURRICULUM: EURO SCHOOLS BOAST ELITE FACULTY

Will an MBA or other graduate business degree from a European school give North American students the skills they need to thrive not only in Europe but back home, should they decide to return?

“I don’t think that is a concern at all,” Masini says, “because all our fundamental courses are designed to make sure that our participants have fundamental knowledge, in all the most important disciplines. Many of our professors trained for their Ph.D.s in U.S. schools, Harvard or Chicago. And even those who did a Ph.D. in Europe like myself, did it in a school that is fully integrated in the international business school ecosystem.”

One area where European B-schools have lagged their U.S. counterparts is in women’s enrollment. Masini says that won’t always be the case. HEC Paris had just 35% women in its latest MBA cohort, on par with UNC Kenan-Flagler (34%) or USC Marshall (36%) but far below most of the top 25, including Wharton (52%), Northwestern Kellogg (49%), Duke Fuqua (48%), and Harvard Business School (46%).

“We’re catching up quickly,” Masini says. “We had about 41% of the applications from United States were from women, so that was very interesting. What we are doing here is, we are working on the demand side and on the supply side as well. We created a number of initiatives at the school and program level to make life easier for female participants, including offering a flexible schedule, because it is not uncommon to have participants give birth during their studies. They can suspend their studies for a few months and continue in the following term, without any loss of credits. We have facilities on campus to accommodate their needs because we know that the MBA age bracket is an age bracket where women do tend to have children.

“And of course, we tried to redesign courses to make them appeal more to women participants. And we’ve had some successes recently with a redesign of the curriculum to show that not only women but somebody with a background in the humanities, perhaps, would do well in our cohort. I know that the American schools are around 40%, but we are catching up.”

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