On her first day of MBA classes at the Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ont., Michele Romanow was surprised when her macroeconomics professor greeted her by name. After all, they hadn't met. Another professor would take her weekend calls on her BlackBerry. She even invited Romanow to present a startup business plan to four executive MBA classes for feedback. When she graduated in the spring, Romanow turned the plan into a business that processes and distributes caviar. "If you sought out any help, you would get triple dividends in return," she says.
At Queens, the No. 1 school in BusinessWeek's ranking of international MBA programs for the third consecutive time, that kind of personal touch is part of the culture, and one way Queens is trying to stand out in a crowded MBA marketplace. In the past, simply offering an international experience did the trick. But as U.S. schools have started to look beyond their North American borders by recruiting abroad and setting up satellite campuses, non-U.S. programs are finding that's no longer enough. The top 10 schools are now differentiating themselves—from U.S. programs and each other—by offering personal coaching, humanities courses, and condensed formats that allow students to complete their MBAs in half the time.
For many schools, the recent changes are paying off. The number of U.S. MBA applicants sending Graduate Management Admissions Test scores to non-U.S. schools is up 35% in the last four years. "They had to get a little creative to get people's attention," says MBA admissions consultant Stacy Blackman of non-U.S. programs. "Those schools are much more on the radar than they were eight years ago."
Because many international programs are small, they can deliver a personalized experience unheard of at most U.S. MBA programs. At Queens, each student has access to five coaches—from a personal development coach who checks in with students regularly to a personal fitness trainer. At IMD (No. 7), in Lausanne, Switzerland, students get 20 hours of therapy to help them better understand themselves and their managing styles. Team coaches actively encourage disagreements, forcing students to learn how to deal with confrontation. "Part of the main purpose of the coach was to get the group to explode," says Ole Jakob Skjelten of Zurich, who graduated from IMD last November.
These non-U.S. programs take the international experience to a level that simply can't be matched by the study-abroad trips and international case studies featured in U.S. programs. At London Business School (No. 5), first-year study groups are selected so that all six students are from different parts of the world. At INSEAD (No. 3), in Fontainebleau, France, no more than 10% of the faculty comes from any one country. And at Madrid's IE Business School (No. 2), last year's class of 287 included 55 nationalities. With the highest student satisfaction rating of all of BusinessWeek's ranked schools, U.S. and international, IE's student body is among the most diverse in the world. Rodrigo Sanchez Hidalgo, who graduated from the program in December, worked with classmates from 15 countries, including Kazakhstan and El Salvador. To help attract an even more international mix of students, IE recently opened marketing and admissions offices in Singapore, Dubai, Berlin, and Lisbon. The goal: producing graduates adept at navigating a multicultural business environment. "This is not a melting pot where participants share a common culture," says Santiago Iñiguez de Ozoño, dean of the business school.
While top U.S. programs follow a traditional two-year format, more top schools in Europe and Canada are condensing their MBAs to fit a one-year time frame. In 2005 the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario (No. 4) went from a two-year to a 12-month format. The program wasn't an immediate hit, but applications were up 40% last year. London Business School also adjusted its program in the last two years, allowing students to graduate in 15 months instead of 21. Such changes allow schools like LBS to compete more effectively against programs like IMD, the shortest of the top 10 non-U.S. programs, where students can get their MBA in just over 10 months.
The programs may be shorter, but new features are differentiating them from their U.S. counterparts. IE is introducing a two-week program at the start of the year called LAUNCH that includes lessons in communication. At Oxford University's Saïd Business School (No. 10) students are encouraged to take classes in the humanities and social entrepreneurship. And at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management (No. 8), new humanities workshops were added to the curriculum in the last two years. The courses are part of what Dean Roger Martin calls an "integrative thinking" curriculum that challenges students to solve business problems in nontraditional ways. "Instead of just crunching the existing analysis, it's understanding new approaches," says Martin. Already the program has begun to attract new recruiters, including U.S. design firms NBBJ, IDEO, and Continuum.
Nonetheless, given the high cost of recruiting abroad and their small size, international programs are still challenged when it comes to attracting top recruiters from the U.S. But international students are not going jobless. In fact, the non-U.S. programs are seeing an uptick in interest from non-U.S. companies looking to expand internationally. At Alpina, a dairy and beverage manufacturer in Colombia, recruiters are planning to extend 15 job offers to MBA students at IE this year, and plan to recruit at INSEAD, LBS, and IESE in 2009. For prospective MBAs seeking a B-school experience unlike anything they'll find in the U.S., such interest from expansion-minded employers may be just the ticket.
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