Chinese Students Continue to Dominate Overseas Studies Market
The annual 2013 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange was recently released. Once again, China ranks as both the fastest growing and the largest source of enrollment in America’s 3,500-plus accredited colleges and universities.
Students from mainland China (counted separately from Hong Kong and Taiwan) numbered 235,000 out of a total international enrollment figure of nearly 900,000 at the tertiary level in the U.S.
The fastest growing segment of Chinese enrollment in recent years has been at the undergraduate level. This past year was no different, with 26% year on year growth.
Of concern to many US universities, however, was the slowdown in growth of enrollment from China at the graduate level, especially in science and engineering disciplines. For the previous 7 years, year on year growth was in the strong double digits. In 2013, it slipped to only 5%. By contrast, first-time graduate enrollment from India surged 40%.
As the Open Doors Report points out, international students represent a major revenue opportunity for the American education system, contributing some US$24 billion to the US economy in 2013. International student enrollment is up 40% from ten years ago, and yet it represents only 4% of total graduate and undergraduate enrollment in the U.S.
American students also studied abroad in record numbers in 2013, totaling 283,000. Most of these were enrolled in summer, semester, or one-year programs, as opposed to the degree programs which Chinese college students typically pursue overseas. The U.K., Italy, Spain and France remain the top destinations for American students, although China has also grown in popularity, and is now ranked 5th.
Even so, less than 10% of US college students study abroad at any point during their undergraduate years. It appears China is doing more to transform their best and brightest into globally-minded citizens than the US is, at least insofar as study abroad is concerned.
Another clear trend in US-China education is the growing numbers of mainland students in private US secondary schools. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, the number of mainland Chinese enrolled in private US high schools is currently 23,795, up from just 4,503 in 2008. Their main objective is to be better prepared for the U.S. college admission process.
The growing appeal of admission to US, Australian, U.K. and other universities has also been a driver of the establishment of more international secondary schools in China. More of the better Chinese high schools now provide college counseling services, providing alternatives to in-country school recruitment agents and consultants, some of whom are aggressive and unethical.
One of the by-products of the heightened competitive admissions environment for top US universities is that many college preparatory high schools in China now have volunteer programs where students engage in community outreach or charity work. Apart from demonstrating social responsibility, this becomes a valuable add-on to the college application.
Chinese parents face a challenging decision on which kind of U.S. secondary school to choose. Among the 1,085 member schools of the National Association of Independent Schools, the median percentage of international student enrollment is only 3.2%
The good news is that in such an environment, Chinese students have no choice but to integrate, improving their English and cross-cultural skills in the process.
However, being part of a very small minority of international students among a student body who tend to be academically bright but culturally provincial, on a campus often located in a rural rather than urban community, can be an extremely lonely experience. Even though the Chinese student may be well prepared academically, he or she will face a highly competitive and challenging social integration process. The emotional challenges involved are significant.
On the other hand are some member schools of The Association of Boarding Schools, where enrollment from China can range higher than 25% of the student body. This gives the Chinese student ample room to hang out just with other Chinese kids.
The recent years’ surge in enrollment from mainland China into American (as well as U.K., Canadian, Australian and other countries’) schools is good news for China and the world, but it is not without controversy.
Widespread fraud in the application process has created a serious reputational problem for applicants from China among U.S. admissions offices. Applicants from China are now routinely treated with an extra level of scrutiny and doubt. Partly because of the soaring numbers, this applies more to Chinese applicants than to those from other countries, according to US education experts I’ve spoken with.
Zinch China, the US-headquartered international online social network for students, published their Zinch White Paper #4 in November 2012. They interviewed 250 Chinese high school seniors from better high schools in China. The paper aimed to describe the extent of application fraud in China, and revealed a sobering landscape:
• 90% of recommendation letters were fake
• 70% of application essays were not written by the candidate
• 50% of high school transcripts were falsified to some degree
The high scholars’ common observation was that “everybody cheats” due largely to relentless, intense parental pressure on getting their kids into famous universities.
Zinch also found that at that time, about 80% of the Chinese applicants to US undergraduate programs whom they interviewed used China-based agents, few of whom follow accepted ethical standards. Apart from a fee ranging from US$6,000 to $10,000, many agents get a bonus for acceptance to top-ranked schools, and (secretly) a percentage of the financial aid package, if one is awarded.
To cope with the fraud issue, and assist US admissions offices to evaluate Chinese applicants’ bona fides, one enterprising group of Americans, Canadians, Israelis and Chinese formed a company providing specialized verification services.
Three-year old Vericant, with offices in China as well as the U.S., provides schools with a video recording of the applicant answering a series of carefully formulated questions in English, as well as a proctor-supervised essay writing session.
According to co-founder Chris Boehner, business is growing steadily. He says there are a growing number of competitive service providers as well as non-profits offering assistance to US admissions offices in China, but Vericant has a head start in their core market, which are private secondary schools.
Boehner says there are about 400 legally registered overseas study consultants in China who offer a wide range of services designed to help Chinese students get into US and other overseas schools. He estimates there are hundreds more unlicensed ones.
Vericant’s website features a statement on the issue of admissions fraud, which emphasizes that the disconnects between the Chinese and US education system also make the application process more complicated for Chinese students. In other words, disconnects in the two systems invite fraud to a certain extent.
A few examples of such disconnects: some Chinese high schools are opposed to their best students pursuing studies overseas, and obstruct the issuance of transcripts or teacher recommendation letters; Chinese teachers are generally not accustomed to writing American-style recommendation letters, and many are not capable of doing so in English.
The British Council’s 2012 Report “Internationalizing Higher Education” forecasts that by 2020, there will be 2.86 million students seeking overseas studies globally. Within the same time frame, they estimate an additional 100,000 students coming into the study abroad market from China, India, Indonesia and Brazil alone.
This estimate sounds low to me, based on recent years’ trends from China alone.
In addition, consider the impact of the recently announced relaxation of China’s one-child policy. Population experts predict this could result in an additional 2 to 3 million births within the first few years alone, especially among wealthier Chinese families — those most likely to be considering overseas study for their children. The impact on the outbound flow of Chinese students over the next 15-20 years could be very significant indeed.
The study abroad market for mainland Chinese students is poised to continue growing by leaps and bounds.
Growing pains, including application fraud, make it a matter of urgency for educational institutions, professional associations, and regulators in the US as well as China to become more engaged in finding effective ways to improve the process.
Chinese parents also need to carefully consider the long-term implications of what examples they are setting for their children by compromising ethical values in pursuit of achieving “face” in the college admissions process.
Meanwhile, the growing ranks of smart and ethical entrepreneurs like those at Vericant are providing a very useful and timely service. Long may they prosper.
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