I like to study near the front entrance of Sterling, mostly so I can catch a glimpse of adorable babies as their tourist parents walk by, admiring the grandeur of the library’s Gothic arches and stained glass windows. Babies are relatively uncommon on college campuses, and I have to get my weekly fix of cuteness somehow.
My people-watching tactics have confirmed what most Yalies have probably noticed by now: A large number of Yale’s tourists come from a certain country across the Pacific. With China’s education-tourism industry valued at an estimated $4.5 billion in 2016 alone, prestigious Western universities have become popular tourist attractions for the Chinese — earning a degree from these institutions signifies intelligence, academic freedom and a sort of cosmopolitan trendiness. Given how competitive and test-based the Chinese admissions system has become, it’s no surprise that China sends far more students to the U.S. than any other country. The stakes are high too. Those who aim for American colleges often forfeit the ability to apply to Chinese colleges.
Still, unless they can endow a new building or two, Chinese students face tough odds in college admissions. Most of the tourists aren’t visiting because they have high school-aged kids who need to see Yale in person to realistically weigh their choices. They visit to marvel at everything that makes Yale, well, Yale: an institution that’s been at the forefront of global innovation for centuries, from developing cancer treatments and discovering chemical processes to advancing social justice and shaping future leaders. It doesn’t matter much if their own children don’t end up here.
Bringing their distinct outfits and thick accents to New Haven, Chinese tourist groups are a fun subject for us to ridicule — unlike their European counterparts, perhaps Chinese citizens are too culturally distant to be viewed as cool. Yet the U.S. at large could glean some valuable lessons from Yale’s visitors. They revere higher education for a reason. Their idealization of top universities testifies to their trust in the power of a good education, in the potential for upward mobility, in the magic of intellectual curiosity. The realities of the education system might not be so rosy, though it’s better than anti-intellectualism.
Here in the U.S., anti-intellectualism in both the public and the government has been gaining traction. A majority of American conservatives now believe that colleges have a negative effect on the country. And it shows; the U.S. recently dropped out of the top 10 countries in Bloomberg’s 2018 Innovation Index for the first time ever, with its fall being attributed to a slump in the rating of its tertiary education and a deficiency of government funding.
We may have a lot to learn from those tourist groups taking selfies on Old Campus.
This new phenomenon, however, does raise some uncomfortable questions. Ever since middle school, I’ve been editing applications for the children of family friends who want to attend American colleges but can’t afford to shell out the thousands of dollars charged by application counseling services (one Chinese consultancy offers a package costing $50,000). I spent my sixth-grade summer ghostwriting personal statements for schools ranging from NYU Stern to UCLA Engineering. The drafts that I worked with were admittedly terrible, full of broken English and unclear ideas, so I took generous liberties with my revisions.
I now find it pretty ironic that I got somebody into UCLA, but I myself got rejected from UCLA five years later. In retrospect, it seems unethical to help international students get into U.S. colleges if they lack fluency in English and preparation for American schoolwork, all while edging out local applicants. Would I do it again?
A few days ago, I asked a family of Chinese tourists outside of Sterling about why they were visiting Yale. They cited Yale’s top environmental science opportunities, and their four-year-old daughter said she wanted to end air pollution once and for all. I gave them my personal email for when she needs help applying to college. Then we took a selfie.
Kenneth Xu is a first year in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .