Elisabeth Garrett spent her childhood in Buenos Aires and worked in New York before deciding to pursue a globally oriented M.B.A. After considering programs on both sides of the Atlantic, she enrolled at HEC Paris, a management school where she works alongside classmates from 50 countries.
"The American programs, even when they were declaring themselves very international, didn't have the diversity of some of the European programs," she says, adding that the setting, just outside Paris, didn't hurt. "Everyone loves Paris. I'm not going to lie. It was a big attraction."
Ms. Garrett, 27, is part of a small but growing number of Americans who are heading abroad to pursue a degree that was born in America but has gained a foothold in other parts of the world.
European business schools, in particular, are making headway in their efforts to recruit foreign students like Ms. Garrett by emphasizing their multicultural strengths. And since most European M.B.A. programs can be completed in one year, in contrast to the typical two years for American programs, they also attract students who want to avoid paying an extra year of tuition and forgoing a year of earnings.
A study released in 2009 by the Graduate Management Admission Council confirmed that foreign applicants were increasingly looking outside the United States when applying to M.B.A. programs. The council, which administers the test that is required for entry to most top graduate business schools worldwide, reported that the proportion of test scores these students were sending to programs in the United States has slid steadily from 75 percent in 2000 to 42 percent this year.
Students were probably discouraged by the stagnant job market in the United States, as well as tighter restrictions on work visas since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, management-education experts say.
At the same time, students overseas are finding more options closer to home as the demand for M.B.A.'s in their home countries increases. Last year, for the first time, more than half of tests administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council were taken by non-U.S. citizens.
Among the beneficiaries of the less-than-welcoming conditions in the United States was Essec Business School, one of France's leading programs and the first in Europe to be accredited by AACSB International: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
"For the citizens of the world, I think the George W. Bush years were very painful years," Pierre Tapie, dean and president of Essec, says during an interview at his campus in a Paris suburb. "But as a selfish dean, I was very happy to see how many people who were pushed out of the U.S. came here instead. The more the United States was shutting the doors, the more the free world was going elsewhere." That applied to international faculty members as well as students, he says.
Despite American business schools' extensive efforts to globalize their curricula in recent years, Mr. Tapie argues that schools in Europe are better positioned to offer a truly multicultural experience.
"We are more international naturally because our countries are smaller and English is not our mother tongue," he says. "The diversity of Europe in a limited space interests people. If you are coming from Shanghai or Moscow or Mumbai, you can, in a five-hour drive, see five countries, hear five languages, and see 15 landscapes."
Most European M.B.A. programs require students to speak more than one language; a new global M.B.A. program at Essec will require a minimum of three.
Insead, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, that is considered one of the world's top global M.B.A. programs, also has campuses in Singapore and Abu Dhabi and offers an M.B.A. program that can be completed in 10 intensive months. Students come from 83 countries, and 92 percent are from outside France.
Valérie Gauthier, associate dean of the M.B.A. program at HEC Paris, explains the advantages that her school, located a half-hour from Paris, near Versailles, offers students seeking a global education.
Students typically work in groups to solve case studies. "The professor will present the case and not give the solution until all of the participants have shared their own views based on their experiences and cultures," she says. "For instance, students learn in accounting that a balance-sheet analysis will be handled differently in Latin America and China."
"We want people from around the world who have had international exposure already," she adds. "It's a question of survival. Arriving at HEC Paris, where you would be surrounded by people from 50 different countries speaking dozens of different languages would be hard if you hadn't spent time outside your country."
Ten years ago, most of the program's students were French; today, only 20 percent are. The biggest increases have come from India and the United States, she says.
While a few European business schools have offered M.B.A.'s for decades, it is only in the last 10 years that it has become a recognized standard in France, Ms. Gauthier says. "In 2002, when I started and told people I was working with the M.B.A., someone said, 'Oh—you've switched to basketball.'"
Ms. Garrett, the HEC student, says international students made up only about a third of the enrollments at some of the American programs she considered.
"The American programs just seemed much more provincial," she says. "You might touch on the local perspective, but here, every conversation brings in such a layer of cultural context, even if it's the appropriate approach for women doing business in Japan or Latin America or the United States. Americans tend to want to rush in and get things done, but in Brazil, you might chat first and greet someone with a kiss and hug before you get down to business."
The leaders of top M.B.A. programs in the United States say they, too, are preparing students to work in a global economy. That often involves creating alliances with business schools overseas. Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business offers student exchanges with several foreign schools, including HEC Paris, Essec, and London Business School.
The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School offers exchanges through its alliance with Insead and relationships with other foreign programs. International students from 68 countries make up 36 percent of Wharton's M.B.A. enrollment, and nearly 40 percent of the faculty members are international, officials there say.
Thomas S. Robertson, dean of the Wharton School, says his program benefits from the strengthening of top European business schools.
"The better those schools become, the better the exchanges we can set up for students and faculty," says Mr. Robertson, who was born in Scotland and has taught at London Business School. "We do everything conceivable to be an international business school."
Yet, between 2005 and 2009, the percentage of students enrolled in full-time M.B.A. programs in the United States who came from outside the country dropped to 25 percent from 29 percent, according to figures reported to the AACSB by 176 accredited schools. (The actual number of students from the United States jumped 31 percent during that time, while the number of international students grew by a much smaller 9 percent.)
Meanwhile, the drastic growth in the international makeup of top European M.B.A. programs has been accelerated by aggressive recruiting over the last decade. Madrid's Instituto de Empresa Business School, known as IE, expanded its network of offices from Latin America and New York to include Dubai, Los Angeles, Miami, Moscow, Mumbai, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo.
At IE, the percentage of students who come from outside Spain grew from 66 percent in 2005 to 90 percent this fall, with the biggest growth coming from Asia. The number of countries represented in the 13-month program jumped from 45 to 70, while the number of American students has climbed from 25 in 2005 to 40 this year.
"Over the last 10 to 15 years, we've grown tremendously in international recognition," says Lisa Bevill, associate director of admissions, citing IE's high international rankings and its growing popularity among recruiters from multinational companies.
At the Front Lines
Erin Byer, 26, enrolled at IE this year after working for four years at Habitat for Humanity in San Francisco. She hopes her M.B.A. will help her land a job in the community-development section of a bank, helping low-income people make better financial decisions.
Her decision to apply overseas followed a conversation with her parents, who had just written a letter of recommendation for a family friend who was applying to a European M.B.A. program.
Ms. Byer, who had been looking at programs in the Bay Area, decided to "get outside my comfort zone" and apply overseas herself.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to be able to see more of the world, jump into a completely foreign culture, meet, converse with, and learn from people from many diverse backgrounds," she wrote in an e-mail message. She says the Spanish program will put her "at the front lines of what it means to be in a global business market."
International students from 50 countries make up 80 percent of the M.B.A. enrollment at the University of Navarra's IESE Business School in Barcelona. Applications from the United States jumped 25 percent this year over last, and this fall's entering class of 280 includes 31 Americans.
English is the main language of most of the globally oriented M.B.A. programs in Europe.
The first year of IESE's full-time M.B.A. program is taught in English, while second-year electives are offered in English and Spanish.
The 16-month program at HEC Paris is taught in English, but international students are required to study the French language during one of four terms.
The growing popularity of European programs "doesn't mean that American schools have dropped in students' esteem," says Ulrich Hommel, associate director of quality services at the European Foundation for Management Development, which accredits business schools in Europe.
"It just means that the whole issue of getting a multicultural, international education has increased in importance, and European schools are sometimes perceived as delivering more on that," Mr. Hommel adds. He is a former dean of the European Business School, in Wiesbaden, Germany, which offers a 16-month international M.B.A. track that includes study abroad at a foreign partner university.
One American program that comes closer to the more practice-oriented European model, he says, is the University of Michigan's full-time M.B.A., in which students practice their skills working in teams for companies in different countries.
While major global recruiters recognize the brand names of Europe's top M.B.A. programs, some applicants still worry that companies accustomed to hiring from Harvard or Wharton might have a tougher time distinguishing among the alphabet soup of programs like IE, IESE, and HEC.
Ms. Garrett says she isn't worried. "In New York, HEC was popping up at the same career fairs as the top American programs," she says. "I recognize that if I go to work in a less international city, I may have to explain where I went, but anyone with Google access can find its place in the rankings and see what a strong program it offers."