Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Justin Chang lived in Alabama and California before attending high school in New Jersey and earning an economics degree at New York University. But when he decided to get an MBA, he never even considered a U.S. school.
“I think every generation has a gold rush, and now it’s China,” says Chang, 29, who worked at a hedge fund and an IT consulting firm after finishing his undergraduate work. “I wanted to be in Beijing, so I only looked at Peking University and the BiMBA program.”
Like Chang, a growing number of Westerners are recognizing that as China’s economy has risen, so has the appeal of its MBA programs. The 2012 Financial Times global list of the 100 best full-time MBA programs includes five Chinese business schools: CEIBS, Hong Kong UST Business School, CUHK Business School, University of Hong Kong, and Peking University Guanghua. In each case, classes are taught in English by professors proficient in the language in a 14-to-24-month MBA experience.
GETTING YOUR MBA IN ASIA CAN COST HALF AS MUCH AS IT WOULD IN THE U.S.
Earning a degree in China typically costs less than half of what it does at U.S. schools: Consider BiMBA’s tuition bill of about $30,000, next to Wharton’s $108,000. And many of these schools are anxious for top North American or European applicants and willing to dangle significant scholarship money in front of them.
Along with the typical MBA knowhow imparted in a good program, these students can acquire a network of Chinese nationals and perhaps even score an executive job in the Middle Kingdom after graduation. A winter 2012 survey from the London-based management and recruitment firm Antal found that, whereas only 49% of U.S. companies plan to hire in the next quarter, 71% of Chinese ones do. That difference is keenly felt by graduating MBAs in Asia. Last year at CEIBS alone, 450 companies posted more than 1,500 job openings for the school’s 184 graduates who each had seven to eight job opportunities on average.
Nonetheless, even the highest-rated Chinese B-schools lack the cachet of top-drawer U.S. names. “When I see Harvard or Wharton or Northwestern on a resume, it makes me sit up and take notice,” says Tara McKernan, a New York City-based executive vice president at the executive search firm DHR International. “And of course, Cambridge or Oxford or London School of Economics would, too. An MBA from BiMBA or CEIBS doesn’t have a lot of impact in the U.S. yet because it’s something of an unknown here.” A few other drawbacks to the Chinese MBA experience exist (we’ll get to those later), but Chang and the other Americans at CEIBS and BiMBA express unreserved confidence in their decisions to study in the Far East.
THE BIGGEST ADVANTAGE: CULTIVATING RELATIONSHIPS WITH CHINESE BUSINESS CONTACTS
First and foremost, these transplants get the opportunity to cultivate long-term relationships with Chinese nationals who can serve as business contacts for the rest of their corporate or entrepreneurial lives. “I wanted to do an MBA in Asia to enhance my international perspective and contacts,” says Brian McMahon, 29, a Seattle native who graduated from the University of Southern California and worked in investment banking before starting his MBA at CEIBS. “There are [Western] students here who want a Chinese network but not necessarily to work in China.”
Garrett Twitchell, 30, a U.S. native who enrolled at BiMBA after graduating from Annapolis and working as a NATO policy adviser in Kabul, plans to stay in China. “One of the interesting things about doing an MBA in China is you get direct access to a demographic of Chinese people you wouldn’t otherwise,” he says. “The entire full-time class is about 50 people, so it’s quite intimate.” While relatively inexpensive for U.S. students, the tuition at Chinese business schools is a hefty sum for many natives, so the Chinese students tend to come from affluent families.
Working on projects with native Chinese equals a crash course in culture, Twitchell says. “You learn quickly as a foreigner how to phrase things because ‘face’ is so important over here. You have to know how to skirt around certain issues. Because of this, I’ve developed my leadership skills in a cross-cultural environment.”