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Luxury MBAs, Buyers Beware

More MBA programmes are offering a concentration in fashion, while other institutions of varying calibre are promising pathways to the industry through certificate programmes and extracurricular networking events. Are they worth it?
Source: BoF
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — Like many university students, Orchid Kafexhiu found that her undergraduate degree in political science didn't exactly translate to the career she had finally settled upon. "I wanted to learn the luxury industry," says the New York-based aspiring marketing executive. "And I wanted the educational background before trying to find a job."

Kafexhiu researched schools that offered courses or degrees in the sector, settling on the International University of Monaco, where she graduated with a master’s in luxury goods and services in 2015. Set in a glitzy location conveniently located close to both Paris and Milan, the school’s MBA programme — which is accredited by the Association of MBAs (AMBA), but not the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or Equis, a part of the European Foundation for Management Development — is ranked 83rd on The Economist’s list of the top 100 MBA programmes in the world. But Kafexhiu did not receive an MBA, which costs €32,500 (just over $36,600) for the 2016-2017 academic year. Instead, she earned a more specialised degree, which rings up at the bargain price of €21,200 (around $24,000) for the 2016-2017 year, which she hoped would help get her closer to a position at a top brand.

“Many of the instructors had professional experience working with major luxury companies. It was very immersive and intensive in learning every aspect of the luxury industry,” she said of the programme. “They have an enormous contact base, and a lot of my peers now have really great jobs.”

However, Kafexhiu, who is based in New York, is still looking for work more than a year after graduating. “I don’t know that the master’s degree can overcome [lack of] experience,” she said. “I do see that people that don’t have the master’s degree but have been working longer are being chosen [for jobs] before me.”

The International University of Monaco continues to build on its luxury-focused courses. In 2011, it launched a master’s in luxury retail management, which included 10 months in class and a seven-month internship, and in 2013, the school announced a partnership with India’s Luxury Connect Business School to offer students postgraduate certificates and diplomas in specialisations like luxury brand management.

The International University of Monaco and the Luxury Connect Business School are just two of dozens of organisations and institutions around the world eager to woo graduate students aiming to land a job in in the luxury sector. Despite macroeconomic headwinds that have proved challenging for the industry, there is still an attractive gloss to working at a major fashion house or luxury brand. And for those with an entrepreneurial instinct, a few years spent learning the ropes at one of the world's most esteemed labels can prove an invaluable line on their curriculum vitae. Indeed, it's helpful to be able to drop a name like Chanel when courting investors or simply asking important people for advice regarding a start-up idea.

In 2015, the appetite for MBAs overall was back on the up, according to the Graduate Admission Management Council (GMAC), which tracks business school data. (The company also owns the famous GMAT exam.) Globally, the number of applicants to MBA programmes was up at 57 percent of schools offering full-time two-year programmes, Domestic applications were up at 59 percent of US schools, from 48 percent in 2014, marking a reversal of a downward trend that began in 2009. In Europe, 67 percent of schools saw an increase in application volume, up from only 38 percent in 2014. In the Asia-Pacific region, 90 percent of schools saw an increase in applications, compared with 55 percent in 2014.

But while the GMAC says that MBAs remain the most popular master’s degree worldwide, a 2015 survey of 10,000 prospective students suggests that more than a quarter are considering both MBA and specialised master’s programmes when applying to universities. Another quarter is considering only specialised master’s — such as a master’s in data analytics, finance or brand management. That’s a big jump from 2009, when only 15 percent were considering specialised master’s programmes.

That might have to do with the increase in MBA graduates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 189,300 students graduated with MBAs from US institutions over the 2013-2014 school year, up 36 percent from 139,300 in 2003-2004. There are now more MBA degrees doled out than any other master’s degree and, as a result, their perceived value may be waning.

Most MBA programmes allow for a certain level of specialisation as well. At New York University Stern School of Business’ $66,588-a-year full-time MBA programme, applications from prospective students expressing an interest in the luxury, fashion and/or retail sectors have doubled since 2008, according to Isser Gallogly, assistant dean of MBA admissions. At Stern, “Luxury Marketing” is one of more than 20 specialisations on offer, and students are permitted to take on no more than three specialisations. While only 5 to 7 percent of the school’s full-time MBAs state that they wish to pursue careers in this sector, more than 100 Stern MBA students took a class related to “Luxury Marketing” in the last academic year (2015 to 2016).

A handful of schools specifically target students looking to enter the fashion business after graduation. Well-regarded programmes include the MBA in international luxury brand management at ESSEC (École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales), a €45,000 (around $50,700) 11-month programme with company partners such as Kering, LVMH Group, L'Oreal Luxe, Estée Lauder Companies and Richemont, among others. Sup de Luxe at EDC (École des Dirigeants et des Créateurs d'entreprise) offers both a master's and bachelor's degree in global luxury management, supported financially by Cartier. HEC (École des Hautes Etudes Commerciales), also in Paris, offers a certificate in luxury strategy. London Business School offers a concentration in luxury management, while Columbia Business School runs a full-time course on the design and marketing of luxury goods.

However, these top-notch programmes are few and far between. And while job placement rates of top MBA programmes can reach well over 90 percent, the rates for specialised programmes are more difficult to discern.

“There is a very small number of universities that have a luxury goods or retail focus at the MBA level,” says Robert Reid, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a non-profit organisation that has accredited 761 business schools in 52 countries and territories through a three-to-four year process. “But there has also been a growth in the number of new business schools, which often try to offer more niche or targeted programs so that they can compete against schools that have been established for years or decades.”

For prospective students with weaker applications, grades and test scores, lesser-known institutions are even more enticing. Many programmes — even at well-known institutions — do not offer a degree at all, but a certification that is rarely accredited. “Many universities run short courses in fashion that last three or four days, or maybe a month,” says Sunita Gordon, head of external affairs at University World News. “To be very blunt, I think universities are doing those to make extra money.”

It's the modern equivalent of sending eligible unmarried daughters to finishing school. Maybe they're not doing any harm, except in so far as they dilute the idea of a serious education in fashion.

Programmes also often offer international students a way to secure a student visa, serving as a back-door entry into living in a country. Known as “visa mills” or "diploma mills", these non-research-focused, for-profit institutions attract a range of people who are looking for immigration rights. “You have to pass an English test in order to study in the United Kingdom and the GMATs in order to do an MBA, but it’s a migration thing more than anything else,” Gordon says. “When they do come and their English is not so good, there is a bit of tension with other students. The groups become isolated, and there’s less mixing.”

Indeed, while Kafexhiu has mostly positive things to say about her time at the International University of Monaco, she felt a divide between the English-speaking students and those who were less comfortable with the course’s set language. “There’s a very obvious difference,” she says. “It could be difficult when we worked on group projects.”

But regardless of the academic calibre of the programme, the emphasis seems to be on exclusivity: the more connected the professors and board members are to the real-world industry, the better. “It puts you in a network that isn’t accessible to everyone,” Gordon says.

“It’s the modern equivalent of sending eligible unmarried daughters to finishing school,” says Susan Scafidi, the first professor to ever teach a course in fashion law and the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. “Maybe they’re not doing any harm, except in so far as they dilute the idea of a serious education in fashion. It’s already a fighting battle.”

So buyer beware. Not all so-called "Luxury MBAs" may be worth the investment, even if they are marketed with all the gloss and excitement of luxury and fashion. Indeed, from their very inception, many of these programmes appear to be more about getting a leg into the industry through networking and access, rather than teaching the bona fide skills needed in order to succeed in luxury and fashion management. What’s more, it’s clear that a diploma is not a magic calling card, either. Applicants should carefully research each institution — and talk to former students — so that they can really understand whether or not the programme they are considering is worthy of its investment.

To view the full State of Fashion Education Report and BoF Global Fashion School Rankings click here.

BoF's Annual Global Fashion School Rankings 2016

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