"I thought it would be cool to live in Europe and started wondering if I could do it and get my MBA., too," Mr. Altman says. He noticed that the HEC School of Management outside Paris had begun showing up in rankings of top M.B.A. programs and after some research decided HEC could indeed help him develop his language skills and "a cultural sensibility to the way business is done in Western Europe." Now as he nears graduation, he hopes to land an e-commerce job and remain in France.
The MBA degree may be a US invention, but more American students are taking a closer look at Europe's increasingly competitive business schools. Many European schools have stepped up their marketing in the US, touting the advantages of their international culture and curriculum in an ever more global economy. Some schools also promote their one-year degrees as a better value than the typical two-year US program.
"There's a very big market for us to tap because as a general rule Americans aren't very international and still aren't very aware of European options," says Janet Shaner, director of MBA marketing at IMD, a Swiss business school that recently increased its promotional activity on the East and West coasts and plans to target Chicago and Houston next.
IMD clearly has plenty of prospects. In 2004, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found that 98.43% of all Graduate Management Admission Test scores for U.S. citizens were sent to American schools, down just slightly from 98.86% in 2000. That's partly because there's such a large supply of highly regarded US business schools. Some people also fear that if they return to the US after graduation, corporate recruiters will be unfamiliar with their European degrees.
Then there's the language barrier. Because they aren't multilingual, many Americans are reluctant to undertake demanding MBA studies in a foreign culture. Although most European management courses are taught in English, students are expected to master at least one additional language during the program.
"Americans are notoriously gun shy when it comes to foreign languages," says Daphne Atkinson, a vice president at GMAC. "It's a huge hurdle when a school requires proficiency in a second language for admission. And even when that isn't a requirement, there's still fear of living in another culture and needing to use another language for going to the grocery store and just coping with daily life."
Some schools stress that they aren't interested in Americans who simply have feelings of wanderlust. "We want committed people who have already worked abroad or worked for an international company in the US," says Gabriel Hawawini, dean of the Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, which offers scholarships specifically for US students and recently hired a public-relations firm to boost its brand in America. Insead has one of the toughest requirements of the major European business schools. Applicants must be proficient in two languages before enrolling and learn a third during their year at Insead.
To overcome Americans' reservations about securing an MBA in another country, European schools are providing more personalized attention. The Smurfit School of Business in Dublin, for example, has established a program called "the Experience" that brings American prospects to campus for four days.
HEC Paris connects potential American applicants with US alumni and current students to try to assuage any fears about fitting in and finding jobs. "Many Americans can't visit the campus so it's much more difficult to educate them about what we have to offer," says Elyse Michaels, MBA development manager. "We travel to the U.S. as often as we can to meet with potential applicants and reassure them that they can take classes in English or French and that we'll help them adjust to a different culture." One-fifth of HEC's MBA class this fall is American, more than double the usual percentage.
Spanish schools say they're seeing a payoff from staging information sessions in more US cities. At Barcelona's ESADE business school, 11% of the students in the 18-month MBA class and 14% of those in its new 12-month program are American. "Given the importance of the Spanish language in the US, we find that ESADE has a natural attraction for some students," says Colin McElwee, executive director, corporate marketing.
But British schools often fare best in attracting Americans because of a shared language and stronger name recognition. The Said Business School at the University of Oxford launched a one-year MBA program just nine years ago, but Americans have accounted for as much as a quarter of recent classes. The school attributes its appeal to the strong Oxford brand, as well as its entrepreneurship focus and close relationship with technology companies in California. "We believe that you can't be an international business school without a significant US presence," says Dean Anthony Hopwood.