In the past week, hundreds of colleges across the United States have released their admissions decisions for the class of 2016. Acceptance letters, tucked into neat packages alongside T-shirts and posters, are still being sent to anxious students everywhere. One thing is certain: More and more of those letters are making their way to the most populous nation in the world.
While Chinese students have traditionally preferred to go abroad for graduate school, they are now making the jump much sooner. The past few years have witnessed an astonishing rise in the number of Chinese undergraduate students in the United States. According to the Institute of International Education, nearly 57,000 Chinese nationals enrolled in American colleges for the 2010-’11 academic year. That’s more than a fivefold increase from four years ago, when the total number of Chinese college students in the States hardly exceeded 10,000.
Why are so many Chinese students going abroad for college?
About a year ago, a friend from high school told me that he was applying to transfer to a public university in the Midwest. I was thoroughly surprised. At the time, he was a freshman studying business at a decent, albeit not top-notch, university in Shanghai, and, by all accounts, he was doing well.
He consulted me about his options, and I advised him to reconsider. I knew that his family wasn’t exceptionally wealthy, and a $150,000 price tag would put a considerable burden on his parents. I also knew that, although his English was quite good, the transition to an American college classroom could be a tough one.
What drove him to make the leap across the Pacific was disillusionment with the education he was getting, combined with a strong urge to maximize his future career prospects. He called his Chinese education “uninspiring,” and said that his individuality was being stifled. He also doubted whether his Chinese degree would be able to prepare him sufficiently for Shanghai’s hypercompetitive job market.
My friend’s story turned out to be a successful one, as he quickly adapted to college life in America. He is currently studying finance and math, and he hopes to go into the finance industry when he graduates.
Sometimes, such decisions are made in more difficult circumstances. A few weeks ago during one of our Skype conversations, my father brought up the topic of my younger cousin, who is currently a senior in a local high school in the southern city of Hangzhou. We discussed his prospects in the upcoming National Higher Education Entrance Exams, colloquially referred to as the gaokao, which solely determine which college he will attend.
My father told me that my cousin hadn’t improved his grades as much as we had hoped. In fact, with his current marks, it was possible that he would only be able to attend a second- or third-tier university. If he did indeed fail to do well on the gaokao, my father said, his parents would consider sending him abroad.
The plan was that my cousin would first go to a language school, where he would study English for a year. He would then apply to colleges and, hopefully, be able to adjust like my friend did. Presumably, the prospect of a better education in America would outweigh the risks associated with sending a teenager to a completely foreign environment. I can’t help but worry about his poor language skills and the fact that it would be his first time leaving home, but the alternative seems equally bleak.
What these two cases show is that for Chinese families, sending their kids abroad has become an option no less viable than following the educational system at home. This is a key development for China, but it has long been true for most developed nations in the world.
The astonishing outflow of students demonstrates the profound tension between China’s newfound affluence and the persistent underdevelopment and rigidity of its education system, especially at the undergraduate level. Once Chinese parents realized that better educational options were accessible and that they had the means — even if just barely — to reach them, they dove into a frantic arms race to secure the best possible result for their kids.
So will the explosive growth in the number of Chinese students studying abroad ever slow down? Think of the entire situation like a disrupted equilibrium that is quickly rebalancing itself. Chinese applicants to American colleges are already lamenting the rapidly intensifying competition, and foreign degrees are dropping in value at home.
While Chinese application numbers will probably eventually stabilize, they are likely to remain high as long as there exists a substantial gap between quality of education at home and abroad.
I hope my cousin, one among a new generation of kids who find themselves stuck between the two options, ends up on the right path.
Xiuyi Zheng is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.