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Europe or America? Where to Do an MBA

Which side of the Atlantic should get your MBA on? And what should you expect once you decide?

By K. Thomas, Jun 15, 2008


Stanford University, Jeff Pearce

When it comes to world-class MBA programs, the United States still leads the pack. After all, they did invent them about a hundred years ago. According to the Financial Times, the US boasts four of the world’s top five business schools: Wharton, Columbia, Stanford, and Harvard. But what exactly is involved for an MBA student in making the big move across the Atlantic?

I took the great leap back in 2005. I transferred from my university in the UK to another in the US. As a native English speaker, I was feeling confident about my ability to understand the locals linguistically, if not necessarily culturally. Of course, I should have known better than to think I was impervious to the phenomenon that affects even the best of us (yes, even Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson) – the feeling of somehow having been “lost in translation.”

Anecdotal evidence is one thing, but it is hardly the best guide when trying to decide whether or not to drop everything, enrol in a MBA program thousands of miles away, and immerse oneself in a foreign culture, especially when there probably plenty of decent business schools right at your doorstep.

A quick glance at the figures shows that more and more MBA students are leaving home to study abroad. MBA programs are a global business, with the best business schools attracting the best students and faculty from around the world. But competitive schools are also spending more time and money trying to ensure that their students are as prepared and supported as possible.

But what are the real pros and cons between choosing an MBA program in America, or any of the ever-increasing breadth of courses offered in Europe? And what are the significant differences between American and European MBA programs?

In terms of the growth in students and ranking, Europe is fast catching up to the United States. Promising to simplify degree qualifications and nomenclatures, the 1999 Bologna Accord will add some uniformity to European higher education in the coming years. The continental business education market has grown as a result, particularly for Masters in management courses.

With nearly 500 MBA programs in Europe and over 700 in the United States, the choice of which side of the Atlantic has never been so difficult. But what are the basic differences between the two regions? In general, schools in the US are larger, with an average intake of 287 full-time MBA students, compared with 124 in Europe. Typically, a European MBA program is shorter; most run for a year, while most US schools run for two. The leading American schools might have more world-renowned professors than their European counterparts, but these experts may devote only limited time to teaching, or even worse, may not teach on the MBA courses at all.

An important difference is that European schools have a significantly higher percentage of non-national students and faculty members than their American counterparts. Of the top business schools in the United States - Wharton, Columbia and Harvard - roughly 33 to 45 percent of students came from abroad. That figure is close to 90 percent at some of Europe’s top-ranked business schools, including London Business School and INSEAD. A survey of the proportion of overseas faculty members at those schools reveals a similar trend.

Clearly, differences in MBA programs reflect the differences in national and regional business cultures. But like globalized business, b-schools around the world are becoming more alike each year, with many school’s developing globally-focused curricula. Meanwhile, dozens of new trans-national partnerships are developing between US, European, and Asian business schools.

But once they’ve decided for either the United States or Europe, how do foreign students fare once they’ve left home? You can get a pretty good idea just by reading a few of the many MBA student blogs out there.

Most students with any experience of foreign study would admit to having gone through their fair share of difficulties: getting used to a new language, new culture, new academic system, and educational ethos, not to mention different food, social patterns, and dealing with the inevitable homesickness. The urban nightmare of London seems at least a world away from your typical leafy American campus. Orienting oneself within a university and a social environment which might bear little resemblance to the one you’ve left behind can seem like a never-ending battle.

Alternatively, and precisely because education has become so globalized, you might arrive at your new institution in the city of your choice only to find it is so cosmopolitan as to feel far less distinctly English, American, French, German, or Japanese than you had imagined. Wherever you choose to study, doing an MBA abroad is arguably the best-possible introduction to business life in that country. And most would agree that taking up the challenge of studying abroad can be not only financially rewarding, but personally rewarding, too.


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