Published on YaleGlobal Online Magazine (
Home > American Universities Eye Chinese Students

American Universities Eye Chinese Students

Increasing numbers of Chinese choose to study abroad, and nearly half head for US institutions of higher learning. The reasons behind the exponential growth, even at the undergraduate level, are as much financial as “the emphasis on globalization and diversity touted by the universities,” explains Hassan Siddiq for YaleGlobal. US universities have active recruiting programs, and seven of the top ten universities by reputation are based in the United States. Offering a range of academic choices, US schools are attractive for Chinese students, allowing them to explore classes for a year or two before making final decisions about a major. Finally, tighter government budgets at all levels mean reduced subsidies for private and public US universities. Administrators appreciate the willingness of international students to pay full tuition rates. Finally, Chinese graduates head back to China, not expecting to overcome tight visa restrictions for US jobs. Rapid economic growth, emphasis on education and appreciation for US brands have made China fertile grounds for US college recruiters. – YaleGlobal

American Universities Eye Chinese Students

Chinese undergraduates pay top tuition rates – and don’t clamor for US jobs
Hassan Siddiq
YaleGlobal, 12 November 2013
Enriching US universities: Enrollment of Chinese students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shot up, top; the University of Cincinnati, where the class of 2013 celebrates, has earned legendary status in attracting foreign students 

TORONTO: At the peak of Cultural Revolution, almost 50 years ago, 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, 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 globalization and diversity touted by the universities.

In September, more than 5,000 college recruiters and counseling professionals gathered in Canada’s largest city to discuss college planning and transition. The National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC – the largest body of professionals associated with postsecondary education – held its first conference outside the United States to recognize, in the words of its president, “globalization of our society and the higher education needs of students around the world.” One common theme running across the panels and presentations was the increase in the number of Chinese students in American higher educational institutions and how to attract even more. 

In 2007,140,000 students from China went abroad for higher education. In 2012, about 400,000 Chinese students studied abroad, 95 percent of whom were self-sponsored, according to the numbers gathered by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Nearly half decided to come to the United States; Australia and the UK are the second and third most popular destinations, respectively.

The growth of Chinese students pursuing studies in the United States 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 came to the US, with most of the growth coming from self-funded undergraduate students. Comprising 38 percent of all Chinese students, the undergraduate student population now numbers around 74,000. Overall, China started to lead all nations in sending students to the US universities in 2008. Today China sends five times more students to US institutions than the second largest source, according to US State Department statistics on F-1 student visas.

Value of education: International students pay top tuition rates, bringing short-term economic gains to colleges and nearby towns, but many students take their skills with them, returning home after graduation. Total value depends on numerous factors (Data from NAFSA and Institute of International Education) Enlarge Image.

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 recognized brands – UK roughly 30; USA about 100 – 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.

It comes as no surprise, then, that US institutions with long histories of hosting Chinese graduate students have seen some of the sharpest increases in undergraduate enrollment. The University of Southern California, USC, has the largest number of international students in the country. The university admitted three Chinese in 1978 when authorities allowed the first group of students to come to the US. By 2004, the number of Chinese students at USC had risen to hundreds. Still, only five Chinese nationals came to USC to start their undergraduate studies. In 2013, the number of freshmen from China stands at 147, making up 34 percent of USC’s international freshmen.

Chinese students also prefer the US because the universities offer more academic choices. In the UK, students generally are expected to choose a major at enrollment and stay focused on it during the course of the program. In the US, on the other hand, most universities allow students to pick a major at the end of the first or second year. In addition, the US system is better suited to China’s school system. Unlike the British high school system with A Levels, Vanbergen pointed out, “the Chinese system doesn't direct students to focus on specific subjects” and therefore many may be undecided about what to study in college.  

Chinese students prefer the US because its universities offer more academic choices.

For their part, US universities are working hard to maximize their share of paying Chinese students. Recruiters understand that despite the recent growth, the number of Chinese students coming to the US for higher education 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. A 2012 survey by Zinch Market Research suggested that 62 percent of Chinese applicants to American undergraduate programs can afford to pay at least $40,000 annually. In 2011, the number stood at 53 percent.

The need to penetrate the Chinese student market has been further exacerbated by 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. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, UIUC, has nearly 9,400 international students studying at all levels today, almost half from China. Illinois also happens to be among states with the worst budget woes and the lowest credit rating in the country. The state owes the university an average of about $300 million in promised payments. The story is not much different at other similar public institutions – Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana – where international student populations have almost doubled in the last six years in the face of state budget cuts.

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. At UIUC, residents pay $15,000 in tuition whereas non-residents pay around $30,000.

China's rise: An increasing share of international students in the United States are from China. (Data from US State Department and Project Atlas)
Enlarge Image.

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. “While some universities may have more immediate revenue considerations, we focus on providing the best education experience for our students,” notes Kirk Brennan, USC director of admissions. “Having more international students – who are successfully integrated into campus life – better prepares our student body for international business.” 

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 and remain in the United States. 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. In 2012, more than 272,000 Chinese returned after completing their education abroad, 86,700 more than in 2011; a 46 percent increase, according to the Chinese 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.”


Hassan Siddiq studied Grand Strategy at Yale College and is the founder of, a peer-to-peer community focused on writing better.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale