updated 5/27/2005 12:17:05 AM ET 2005-05-27T04:17:05

For newly minted business school graduates, this was the most successful job-hunting year since 2001, a new survey says.

Half of students finishing master's of business administration degrees this year had job offers by mid-March, according to the survey of 5,829 students at 129 business schools conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council, an organization of business schools.

That compares to 42 percent who had job offers at the same point in 2004, and is the highest figure since 64 percent of students had offers in the 2001 survey.

Salary expectations also rose, with the average respondent expecting to earn $84,318 after graduation, compared to $76,147 a year ago.

GMAC President Dave Wilson said employers have been reluctant to hire aggressively in recent years, even as the economy recovered — relying instead on consultants and other contractors.

But this year, he said, "The market is back, the earnings are strong, there's solid growth. It's time to get back to building your own intellectual capital in-house as opposed to outsourcing it."

The survey, to be released Friday, also found 32 percent of respondents said they considered the value of their MBA degree "outstanding," up from 23 percent in last year's survey.

A number of recent scholarly articles have criticized MBA programs for failing to teach useful skills, and GMAC trumpeted the results as showing that customers are satisfied.

Students "think about an MBA as an investment, and it's a substantial one — $100,000," Wilson said. "They're going to look at it in terms of what kind of return are they getting."

"Now that we're starting to see salaries move back up, and the number of offers students get increase, you're seeing the economics of the degree change substantially," he said.

According to the survey, 45 percent of MBA grads plan to enter a different field from the one in which they worked before business school. The fields with the greatest net loss of business school students were nonprofit/government, followed by high technology and manufacturing.

The biggest gainers were consulting and finance/accounting and health care/pharmaceuticals.

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