Biggest Changes On College Campuses? Here’s One

Nanjing Foreign Language School

For those who might want a basic primer about issues that educators, students and families in China face today, what follows is a set of questions I was asked to answer by China Radio International. For those looking for detail about many of the issues raised here the links within this post contain much more analysis and data.


1. Please give us a general description of the trend of US universities admitting Chinese students over the years.

This graph for IIE shows in dramatic ways the huge increase in Chinese students that has occurred over the last decade:

There are now over 300,000 students from China studying in the US. This comprises about a third of all international students in the country. There has never been a surge of students like this in the history of admission. Some universities have thousands of students from China on their campus. This has changed the atmosphere of the campus.

2. The phenomenon of Chinese students study in the US dates back to 1980s, and the number surged in recent years. In terms of the characteristics of Chinese students in US, are there any differences between current students and their predecessors?

The first group of students to come to the US from China were graduate students. These students often were recipients of fellowships or scholarships by the academic departments these students applied to. There were almost no students from China who could, in the 80’s, afford the cost of attending universities in the US. It was only in the late 90’s, after China’s economy grew exponentially, that Chinese high school students started to apply to the US in any significant numbers. As China’s economy improved at an exponential rate, the desire of parents to give their child an opportunity to study outside of China became even more popular and affordable. The Key High Schools in China (famous schools like Beijing No. 4, The High School Associated with Fudan U., Nanjing Foreign Language High etc.) began to send significant numbers of students to the US. Most of the students who were applying tended to come from just a few cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Nanjing. Now students from every Province and hundreds of different schools are applying to the US in large numbers. In addition, Chinese parents are now sending their children to secondary schools in the US to give their children a better chance of getting in to highly selective colleges and universities. These parents also do not wish their children to have to try to compete to score very well on the national entrance exam — the Gaokao which is widely regarded as the most challenging college entrance exam in the world. Applications to boarding schools in the US have skyrocketed in the last 5 years.

3. How would you comment on Chinese students’ performance in US universities?

My personal experience of working with students from China has been life changing. I have learned a tremendous amount about China, about education and about the Chinese culture. At the University I worked for nearly 30 years, Chinese students had the highest GPA of any group of international students and any group of students overall. The Chinese students, in the aggregate, often were awarded top academic prizes and accolades across many different majors and disciplines. But, contrary to the stereotypes of student as one dimensional studying machines, they are doing more than just getting good grades. Increasingly, they also are contributing to the life and culture of the university by performing in plays, creating art, putting on musical performances and cultural events. I assume that what I have experienced is true at many other highly selective universities.

On the other hand, it must be said, there is a lot of concern on the part of educators that there are students from China coming in now who are doing unethical things. One report that came out least year cited that over 10% of students from China are either flunking out or are facing disciplinary actions because of cheating. The overall graduation rate for US students is just over 50% so the 10% rate, is far from terrible compared to that, but nevertheless there is concern that many students from China are not willing or able to do the work expected of them to succeed and earn a degree.

4. What qualities do you see in Chinese students when admitting them, and what would be your concerns?

The students that I know who are being admitted to universities in the US tend to be those who are at or near the top of the applicant pool applying from China. The students who applied for undergraduate admission 15 or more years ago from were looking for scholarships. Virtually every student who applied that I saw was remarkably accomplished in terms of grades, testing and academic ability. Now the number of students applying has increased dramatically; I cannot speak to the overall pool, but most that I do interact with are still very strong students in terms of grades, testing, activities and interests. The students who are trying to get into Ivies or top 30 schools are as good or better than any student anywhere. However, there are students who are now applying to schools in the US who have limited ability in English and not all are highly motivated. These students end up at less selective schools and some of them struggle because they have been admitted with scores that do not predict success. Some of these students are offered admission into English as Second Language programs so they must spend 5 years at least to earn a degree. The TOEFL scores some of these students have are so low I cannot imagine one year of ESL will prepare them for success in a regular degree program.

To sum up, there are more exceptionally fine students applying than there ever have been. The odds of Chinese students gaining acceptance to the Ivies and other top schools is close to 1%. They have the potential to become leaders in their fields. At the bottom end of the pool, however, there are many weak students. Universities are admitting these students not because of their academic abilities, but because they can pay the full fees. US schools have become dependent on these full-paying students from China as there are not enough full paying US citizens entering the incoming classes at thousands of schools.

5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of Chinese students compared to their American counterparts?

I cannot put all students form China into one group given the huge numbers of student now in the US. For those students who are admitted to top US schools these students are academic leaders and help to undermine the stereotype of Chinese students as just very hard workers who do well on tests. Increasingly the top student are developing or coming in with soft skills. They have interests outside for the classroom and have contributed to the life of the university by being active participants in the community. There are some students from China who come from national schools that have emphasized rote learning and have not helped students develop a passion for learning or a passion for activities. The Gaokao encourages rote leaning and as a result some students come in knowing how to memorize but not knowing how to synthesize and draw conclusions that have not been outlined. However, the education system in China is changing and the schools are trying to get students to learn to do more than take tests. Parents also are now letting students choose areas of interest that the student cares about rather than just a major that seems as if it will earn a high salary.

6. A lot of Chinese students apply for US universities with the help of agency, what’s your opinion on this phenomenon?

The use of agents in China has received a great deal of negative coverage in Western media and among educators who work at universities. There are far too many agents who are charging far too much money for things that are not ethical. Some agents are writing essays, recommendations and changing transcripts. These agents give the whole group a bad reputation. There are a large number of people trying to help students in China in ways that are ethical, but they do not get coverage in the media. The bad agents have made most educators in the US suspicious of virtually all students in China. In other words, the students in China are being looked at negatively by many, and the students must somehow prove they are not doing anything wrong. This makes it very difficult for the students who do things the right way as they do observe students using unethical agents getting their students into good schools. It is a huge issue and it needs more effort on the part of schools in the US and in China to make sure that the best students get looked at fairly.