After six years saving her pennies, Xu Peihui, a native of Shanghai and executive assistant in an American law firm, is ready to apply to 10 different full-time MBA programs in the US. Xu says that getting a foreign MBA "will get help get my foot in the door" at multinational companies, more so than a domestic program.
When considering a foreign MBA, however, many Chinese applicants frequently only consider the school’s ranking number, as opposed to factors like curriculum design and other, less quantitative factors.
Steven Lu, an associate for Citigroup in Chengdu, is only applying to the "top five" Western schools he thinks have the most international name recognition. "You have to build a ‘brand of you’," he said, and schools without well-known brands can’t help him develop his own.
Xu also believes that applying to foreign schools ranked below 30 is a waste of time. Her criteria exclude thousands of MBA programs around the world, some of which could well be perfect for her.
However, Xu’s criteria – criterion, rather – while superficial, is not irrational. Rankings do reflect both genuine quality and likely return on investment. And when it comes to foreign schools, most Asian students are forced to rely on rankings more than Western applicants who are fluent in the language and culture and who (unlike Xu) can afford to visit in person.
"I think it’s reasonable for them to be more brand and ranking conscious," said John Van Fleet, former director of a joint venture executive MBA program at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. "I don’t have much patience for Western schools whining about how Chinese people don’t have a robust understanding of the Western education market. Whose fault is that?"
Location, location, location
Lower-ranked schools that want to attract Chinese applicants must aggressively develop their recognition in other ways. Location in a "brand-name" city, for example, is a big seller. San Ying, another MBA hopeful, picked out her MBA application targets based on location first: New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She is attracted to these cities because they are "high economic development zones," and provide more opportunities for jobs and internships.
The Foster School of Business at the University of Washington (UW), while not ranked in the top 40 by the Financial Times (although ranked 27th by BusinessWeek), also benefits heavily from its location. Dan Poston, assistant dean for MBA programs, says the school is popular with Chinese applicants in part because of its location. According to Poston, many Chinese applicants hope studying in Seattle will provide opportunities to connect with world-famous companies such as Microsoft, Amazon.com, Boeing and Starbucks, all of which are headquartered in Seattle and have deep business links with China.
Whether they will actually be able to interact with Microsoft executives remains a question, though. While many Chinese students are able to produce impressive test scores and application essays, either by themselves or assisted by private consultants, far fewer are able to participate in the give-and-take participation required in Western programs.
Tom Brennan, the director of recruitment at Thunderbird University, says that applicants from China with high GMAT and TOEFL scores are seen "struggling more with the language than would be expected." As for participation rates, however, Van Fleet cautions against "China bashing." This type of culture difference is common to all East Asian students, he says. UW’s Poston, in fact, believes that mainland Chinese students are usually better-prepared for participation than students from South Korea or Taiwan.
UW helps Asian students prepare for Western classes through a three-week orientation before classes begin, coaching the incoming freshmen on how to be effective in a business class environment. Domestic joint venture programs have similar problems with students not yet acclimated to the business school environment.
Laurie Underwood, a CEIBS alumnus who studied alongside Chinese classmates, says that while CEIBS’s student body is 60% Chinese, the curriculum – and the grading – heavily emphasizes Western-style participation. However, she says that her classmates caught up quickly. Chinese students also have compensating advantages when it comes to quantitative skills and information retention. "That’s not a stereotype," Underwood said. "It’s real. So there’s an advantage to both sides of education."
But going abroad can have its drawbacks. Chinese students who return home with a foreign education are often referred to as "sea turtles" (haigui) in Chinese media, and are frequently accused of being both out of touch with Chinese business and overly impressed with themselves when they get back.
A subclass of sea turtles is called "seaweed" (haidai). "Seaweeds" are students so out of touch they are unable to find a job at all, much to the disgust of family members who have often spent a lot of money on their education.
Xu is unfazed, though. "Of course things will be changed when I come back," she said, waving her hand dismissively, "but as a Chinese it will be easy to melt back into my native culture."
In fact, Lu doesn’t agree that remaining in China is much of an advantage. "It doesn’t matter how much time you spend in China," he said. "There are a lot of people who live in China for their whole lives and never build up connections."
Both Thunderbird’s Brennan and UW’s Poston say they are seeing an upward trend in the quantity and quality of Chinese applicants. However, Kong Daoning, who works for Golden Arrow, a Chinese education consultancy, is more skeptical. While she agrees that the number of Chinese MBA overseas applications have risen, she believes applicant quality is on the decline.
"These below-average students come from rich families and are able to afford tuition," she said. "They are going abroad as a last resort, but most of them end up coming back to China because they can’t find a job."