More Chinese students want a US education, but fewer stay for a jobJune 25, 2014
At the peak of the Cultural Revolution, it would have been impossible to envision a mass exodus of Chinese-educated youth to universities in the United States, where capitalism reigned supreme.
Fast forward to today, and many Chinese students skip local university entrance exams and apply to American colleges, which leave no stone unturned in recruiting them. The factors behind the change have as much to do with shifts in financial power as with the emphasis on diversity touted by the universities.
In 2007, 140,000 students from China went abroad for higher education. In 2012, about 400,000 studied abroad, 95 per cent of whom were self-sponsored, according to figures from the Chinese Ministry of Education. Nearly half decided to go to the US; Australia and the UK are the second and third most popular destinations respectively.
The growth in Chinese students pursuing studies in the US has been exponential during the past decade: China sent 60,000 students to the US in 2000, almost all graduate students sponsored by the government; in 2012, 194,000 Chinese students went to the US, with most of the growth coming from self-funded undergraduate students.
Overall, China started to lead all nations in sending students to US universities in 2008. Today, it sends five times more students to US institutions than the second-largest source, according to US State Department statistics.
Chinese students are choosing the US over other developed countries because of familiarity with US brands. "The main reason the US is more popular is simply because there is a greater choice of recognised brands … and many more universities in total," says William Vanbergen, who runs a chain of admissions consulting offices and international schools in China. "Australia is only considered by people with less disposable income or those aiming for immigration," he adds, alluding to Australia's open immigration policies.
Chinese students also prefer the US because the universities offer more academic choices. In the UK, students are generally expected to choose a major at enrolment and stay focused on it during the course of the programme. In the US, on the other hand, most allow students to pick a major at the end of the first or second year.
For their part, US universities are working hard to maximise their share of paying Chinese students. Recruiters understand that despite the recent growth, the number is a fraction of the 10 million students who take the entrance exam for Chinese universities every year. They also understand that an ever-increasing proportion of Chinese families have a higher purchasing power.
The need to penetrate the Chinese student market has been further exacerbated by the financial crisis and budget cuts at home. Some of the largest increases in foreign students are seen at public universities with severe funding cuts by state legislatures.
Public universities are particularly eager in welcoming foreign students, who lend international cachet and can also be charged higher out-of-state tuition. Like out-of-state US residents, international students pay twice as much as in-state residents.
Non-resident domestic students could fill these seats too, though universities do not see why they should be given preference. As Michael K. Young, president of the University of Washington, told The New York Times: "Is there any advantage to our taking a kid from California versus a kid from China? You'd have to convince me, because the world isn't divided the way it used to be."
Instead, foreign students are seen as assets who can help prepare local students for a highly connected world.
The US attracts huge numbers of foreign students, but with stringent caps on work visas, does not take advantage of these trained individuals in the workplace. So perhaps it works best for all that the latest cohort of Chinese students no longer yearns to work in the US.
Having immersed themselves in English language and American culture, the students take advantage of increasing opportunities at home. For decades, the rate of return to China remained low as students with advanced degrees did not see opportunities for research at home. Last year, more than 272,000 Chinese returned after completing their education abroad, 86,700 more than in 2011; a 46 per cent increase, according to the Ministry of Education.
Collectively, these students hold the key to transforming China. "This is where the action is," Vanbergen concluded. "There is a huge shortage of bilingual, bicultural talent required to take China into the next stage of development from an export-based to a domestic consumption-based economy. Students with these backgrounds are ideally positioned to fill this demand."