The mess on Wall Street has prompted soul searching at U.S. business schools about whether they helped create the problems by churning out graduates armed with arcane financial algorithms and a single-minded focus on maximizing shareholder value in the short term. As second-guessing grows, officials and students at INSEAD, the business school with campuses in France and Singapore, figure they stand to benefit. The INSEAD admissions office has seen an unprecedented 30% increase in applications this year, and an even bigger rise from candidates in the U.S.
While applications to MBA programs are up across the board as students flee the depressed job market, INSEAD is well-placed to capitalize on doubts about its American rivals, argues Jake Cohen, dean of the school's MBA program. Admissions officers ensure that no single nationality can exceed 10% and the largest single group in this year's class is from the U.S., accounting for 9.7% of the 450 students, up from 7.5% last year. "INSEAD benefits from a diversity of students and faculty, and it does not have a U.S.-focused dogma," says Cohen, an American who became dean last September. "With a classroom with 76 nationalities, we can't prescribe to one model."
The diversity of INSEAD's student population lies at the heart of its appeal for students. "That makes [it] less of a cookie cutter," says Philana Lo, who grew up in Southern California and graduated in 2004. "INSEAD gives you more options and you end up thinking how can I leverage the world and the people I've met." She now works at Beijing-based Ethos Technologies, an IT consultancy she helped found with fellow INSEAD grad Olav Nedrelid from Norway. Bertram Lai, a 2000 alum who is now deputy head of research for CIMB bank in Hong Kong, believes the absence of a party line is what sets INSEAD apart. At schools in the U.S., "students tend to be very homogenous," he says.
Another selling point is the fact that INSEAD's program lasts one year, so it's cheaper than regular two-year programs and allows students to get back on the job market one year sooner. (Tuition is about $69,000 for a 10-month program.) Its dual-campus structure is a big attraction too, and more than two-thirds of the students divide their time between INSEAD's campuses in Fontainebleau, about an hour outside Paris, and Singapore. "The nature of people at INSEAD is they love hopping around everywhere," says Ruben Sanchez Souza, who holds duel Mexican-Brazilian nationality and permanent residency in Canada, and declined his admission to Stanford B-school at attend INSEAD in 2004-2005.
To be sure, INSEAD students are a self-selected bunch with a strong international bent. The school requires applicants to have at least two languages (instruction is in English) and they must graduate with proficiency in a third. Although about one-half of the graduates tend to get hired by big consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain, a large number go on to start their own companies, often with the help of fellow alums.
INSEAD's many electives offering entrepreneurial skills were a big selling point for Ninie Wang, a Chinese national who graduated in 2003. "It struck me as being the most entrepreneurial and providing the most practical approaches to helping students start up their businesses," says Wang, who launched a Beijing-based company, Pinetree, that provides home care services for China's elderly. She credits INSEAD with teaching her to look at all the stakeholders and not just at building shareholder value.
Cohen wants to take that notion one step further by offering new courses on how to deal with the economic crisis, and by introducing dual degree programs with public policy schools. INSEAD is currently exploring possibilities with the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore and the London School of Economics. "Students have to understand that in the past the government was a regulator and referee, but now it's more of a player in the same box running the business," he says. "Students need to understand the public sector better, and the public sector needs to understand the private sector better."
Balfour is Asia Correspondent for BusinessWeek based in Hong Kong.