Ying Zhang did not even know what the GMAT was in February 2008 when she saw an ad for Hong Kong University's MBA program in the city subway. At the time, she was an information systems engineer at a state-owned power company.
"My job was promising, but I knew from day one I wanted something else," she said. "I think I just wanted to get out of my comfort zone and see more of the world -- the MBA was the opportunity that came in front of me."
A week after seeing the ad, Zhang's application for the MBA was in the mail. And a few months later, after adding GMAT scores to her application, she was HKU's MBA poster girl -- literally -- her photo was splashed across the program's Web page.
Economic growth in Asia has spurred a wave of eager young workers to pursue MBAs, a wellspring that has drawn interest from the world's top business schools and burnished the reputation of Asian institutions offering business classes.
In 2010, business schools in Asia received almost 43,000 GMAT score reports from prospective students, more than double the amount in 2006, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the test.
Almost 1 out of 3 people who sat for the business school entrance exam last year came from Asia, up from 25% four years earlier. And, the share of the Asian test-takers who are women is fast approaching 50%.
Consequently, Asian MBA programs are expanding. When Insead opened its Singapore campus in 2000, it had 53 MBA candidates. Today, it has about 2,000, and applications from the region have surged 71% in the past five years.
The Indian School of Business has expanded its enrollment almost five-fold in eight years, to 560. It reportedly aspires to be one of the world's top five MBA programs.
"Demand is coming from both sides," said Insead Dean Dipak Jain. "Companies are asking for well-qualified MBAs and students are also thinking that an MBA would be a good way to get a job."
The strength of the Asian economy has also drawn MBA candidates from outside the region. Almost 900 U.S. residents sent GMAT scores to Asian institutions last year. Insead tries to manage applications so that no more than 10% of its students hail from a single country.
"Every class is like the United Nations," Jain said.
U.S. institutions have been slow to tap into the interest. While many stateside schools offer limited offerings in Asia, Duke University is one of the only business programs with ambitious plans for the region. It plans to open a new campus near Shanghai sometime next year. The site will initially offer masters degrees in management studies via a one-year program, but may eventually hand out MBAs in China.
"I think a lot of [U.S.] schools are sort of dipping their toe in the water," said Paula Greeno, assistant dean for global business development at Duke. "I imagine that they are watching what we're doing and if they see our efforts there as successful, you might see them come in."
While business schools in Asia saw a bump in GMAT scores, the demand for advanced business education is pushing beyond the South Pacific. Asian citizens sent almost 278,000 score reports to MBA programs on other continents, including almost 188,000 to U.S. schools.
"People are not interested in working in their own countries," Jain said. "They would like to work anywhere and in order to do that a good MBA helps. It is what I would call a standardized product, a global product."
Precision Essay, an MBA application consultancy, has helped more than 10,000 Asian candidates apply to U.S. programs in the past five years, almost two-thirds of its entire business, according to founder Jon Frank.
"We have noticed staggering trends," Frank wrote in an e-mail from Beijing. "For mainland Chinese especially, it has never been more important for these folks to get out of China and earn some international credibility."
Students, however, are split on that. Many of those who want to build careers in Asia are opting to stay closer to home.
Zhang, at Hong Kong University, earned some international experience by spending a few weeks studying at Columbia Business School in New York. But when it came to getting a job, it was her alumni network in Asia that paid off.
She's now drumming up business in Asia for ENOI, a private Italian gas company. How's that for global?
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