Chinese Students in the United States


The history of Chinese students studying in American universities dates back to the mid-1850s, when the first student, Yung Wing, graduated from Yale University in 1854 (Bartlett and Fischer Para. 8). Later on, educational missions to the US were organized in the 1870s to train specialists who would create “better engines and iron hulls” for Chinese ships (Bartlett and Fischer Para. 8).

The 1870s mission involved about 120 students, who were sponsored to study at the United States’ top universities. Since the 1870s, the number of Chinese students in American colleges has grown exponentially to become the largest population of foreign students in the US (Institute of International Education [IIE] 7). Chinese students travel to the US to pursue a degree in Western colleges, which they consider to be among the best learning institutions in the world.

The opportunities for Chinese students wishing to study in the US are immense. The US offers a broad range of academic choices and programs, which make it a preferred study destination for Chinese students. Besides, American learning institutions are renowned globally for their quality programs, research, and practical training.

Among the well-known top tier institutions in the United States is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, and Stanford, among others. Chinese students prefer these institutions because the programs offered are of high standards.

Moreover, the programs are differentiated according to “cost, curriculum, program model, and program sponsor,” which favor increased enrollment of Chinese students (Choudaha and Chang 16). Direct exchange partnerships also exist between American and Chinese universities, which allow more students to come to the US for studies. American universities use several strategies to portray themselves as institutions of prestige to enroll more students (Mijares Para. 17).

They use high ACT and SAT scores, enroll more students, and invest in infrastructure to underscore their institutional prestige. This paper examines the current and future trends in international student mobility to the US. In particular, the paper focuses on the growing number of Chinese students studying in the United States.

Current Trends in Overseas Education

In recent years, the population of Chinese students in the US has risen rapidly. Between 2009 and 2013, over 100,000 Chinese students were enrolled at various US higher learning institutions (Fischer Para. 6). Currently, about 25% of foreign students in the US are Chinese.

Moreover, over the past three years, the University of Minnesota has enrolled about 1000 students from China through its Beijing recruitment office (Fischer Para. 6). Currently, about 40% of the institution’s students are from China. It is reported that in 2013, close to 235,597 Chinese immigrants were admitted in various learning institutions in America (IIE). This number represented a 20% increase from the enrollment recorded in 2012.

Also, in the 2011/2012 academic year, the number of scholars from China was higher than the population of students from countries such as South Korea, India, and Canada (Fischer Para. 9). In 2011/2012, the population of international students in the US universities “rose by 7% to stand at 819,644” (Fischer Para. 11).

In the same year, 55,000 more students joined American institutions up from the number enrolled the previous year. The report further indicates that, currently, the population of international students represents a 40% increase from the number reported ten years earlier.

Description of the Industry

The Open Doors report predicts that student enrollment, based on the number of first-time learners who joined American institutions in 2013, will continue to rise (IIE Para. 9). In 2012/13, the number of students went up by 10%, while in 2011/2012 it rose by 7% (IIE Para. 11).

In contrast, following the 2007/08 economic recession, the number of international students enrolling in the US universities declined sharply. Currently, the proportion of foreign students stands at 4% of all students (21 million) studying in America’s institutions of higher learning (IIE Para. 4).

The students come from various countries, including China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, South Korea, and Kuwait, among others. A large proportion of foreign students in US universities, especially those pursuing undergraduate education, are from China (IIE).

As aforementioned, the population of Chinese students rose by “21% to stand at 235,000 learners, while at the undergraduate level increased by 26%” (IIE Para. 5). In contrast, Brazil, under its Scientific Mobility Program, sent a paltry 10,900 students to the US. Saudi Arabia has about 45,000 compared to Kuwaiti’s 5,000 students.

Table 1: International student mobility

Country/Origin 2010 2011 % change
All 799,581 858,180 7.33
China 53,312 196,857 28.4
South Korea 105,696 104,908 -0.75
India 103,760 99,316 -4.3
Canada 30,803 30,779 -0.08
Saudi Arabia 29,391 43,910 49.4
Japan 28,805 27,188 -5.61
Taiwan 27,046 25,918 -4.17
Vietnam 17,116 18,044 5.4
Mexico 15,660 16,777 7.13
Nepal 13,353 N/A
Brazil 14,378 N/A

Source: IIE

It is important to note that students from China, South Korea, and India make up the majority of foreign citizens studying in America. When combined, the students constitute about 49% of all foreign students in the country.

It is important to note that, while the number of students from China continues to grow, those from India and South Korea are going down. Other countries with students in the US include the UK, France, Nigeria, and Germany, among others. The figure below gives the number of Chinese students enrolling in US universities over the past decade.

Table 2: Industry Statistics

Total International Student Enrollment Academic Year Number of Students
2010-2011 723,277
2005-2006 564,766
2000-2001 547,867
Chinese Student Enrollment in the US
2010-2011 157,558
2009-2010 127,628
200-2001 60,000

Source: IIE

State and Institutional Case Studies

Massachusetts Statistics

Massachusetts stands out as the fourth highest host State for Chinese students behind California, New York, and Texas. Chinese Students in Massachusetts in 2010-2011 comprised of 38,698, which represented a 9.6 percent increase from the previous year’s figure.

Brandeis Statistics

At Brandeis, overall international students were 1132 (both undergraduate and graduate). At the post-degree level, there were 171 foreign students drawn 118 nationalities. Out of these, the Chinese were about 390. Of the 390, 150 were enrolled in undergraduate programs, 200 in graduate programs, and about 40 in Academic and Practical Training.

About international scholars, in 2010/2011, there were close to 2010 international researchers/visiting scholars/ faculty scholars from 50 countries with 40 of them being Chinese. The graph below shows the trend of Enrolment at Brandeis.

The trend of Enrolment at Brandeis

Source: IIE

The University of Iowa

In this institution, the number of foreign students has quadrupled over the past few years. At the undergraduate level, about 1700 students joined in 2010/2011 period representing a 350% increase from the 2006 enrollment (400).

Washington University (WU)

The institution recorded an 18% increase in enrollment of foreign students at the undergraduate level, with over 50% of them being Chinese.

Michigan State University

The institution recorded a rapid increase in the number of Chinese students registering for undergraduate studies in 2011. About 2,217 Chinese students joined the university up from 94 who were admitted the previous year.

Opportunities and Problems in Overseas Education

The rapid growth in the number of foreign students pursuing higher education in American universities can be attributed to two programs: (1) the English as a Second Language (ESL) and (2) Optional Practical Training (OPT) courses (Green and Ferguson 21). According to Open Doors, the number of students enrolling for OPT rose to 76,031 in 2011/2012 up from 29,300 in 2004/05 academic period (IIE).

The rise in the number of OPT enrollees is attributable to the expansion of the study duration from a year to 29 months for students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields (Green and Ferguson 25). The new timelines favor students from China, who prefer to pursue STEM courses.

Besides the OPT changes, English as a Second Language program is also favorable to foreign students. According to Green and Ferguson, the number of foreign learners enrolled in ESL rose to 29,000 in 2011 up from 10,000 in 2004, representing a 24% increase. The same data shows that students taking the ESL program are mainly from China and Saudi Arabia. This information is shown in the table below.

Table 3: Students per Study Level

Level of Study 2010 2011 % change
Associate 76,616 74,175 -3.19
Bachelor 240,282 268,186 11.61
Master 198,792 209,367 5.3
Doctorate 120,511 123,836 2.8
Language Training 84,529 95,014 15.7

Source: SEVIS

Reasons Why Chinese Students Enroll at US Universities

Chinese students come to the US for different reasons. Chief among them are the immense academic opportunities, renowned colleges, and high-quality education, among others.

Excellent Academic Institutions

Chinese students seek quality and competitive education to improve their career prospects. Learning institutions in the US are ranked the best in the world in terms of research and innovation. Based on the QS ranking, only three Chinese Universities make it to the list of the top one hundred universities in the world (Marklein Para. 15). Additionally, some universities in mainland China have been embroiled in scandals, which have tainted their reputation and credibility.

Standardized Exams

In China, students aspiring to pursue any academic program must undertake a standardized test, which assesses their performance on a particular area of interest (Marklein).

This evaluation method overlooks key external factors that predict individual performance in a particular field. Often, students who do well in these tests fail to excel in the actual course. In contrast, in the US, universities rely on a student’s ESL, OPT, SAT, and TOEFL scores to enroll him or her. Students who undertake TOEFL and ESL programs achieve improved proficiency in English.

A Top-tier Degree

In mainland China, students and parents place a high value on degrees from prestigious US institutions because of the high-quality education offered. They associate career success with a degree from a top tier college in the United States. In this regard, Chinese parents are ready to sacrifice nearly everything to ensure that their children have access to the best education. Thus, American universities are viewed as symbols of academic success.

Enhanced wellbeing

Usually, rich Chinese families prefer to send their children abroad for studies. USA Today reports that nine out of ten wealthy Chinese families ($10 million) send their children to the US for studies (Marklein). They prefer American institutions because they offer quality education.

Application Criteria for Foreign Students

Admission to an institution of higher learning in the United States is a highly demanding process for foreign students. The institutions place a great emphasis on extracurricular activities, including athletics, soccer, and tennis (Marklein).

They look for talented students to boost their performance in extracurricular activities nationally. Other extracurricular activities include singing and playing musical instruments such as the piano. The institutions also require prospective students to volunteer for community service for a particular period during their studies.

Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT scores are also considered in the recruitment of foreign students. Often, international schools and institutions of higher learning use the SATs as the best way of evaluating whether the prospective student has the requisite skills to be enrolled. The student must also perform well on the IELTS and TOEFL exams. IELTS is an International English Language Testing System that measures the student’s ability to communicate in English (Mijares).

The English-speaking abilities of international students are highly assessed because it influences their classroom learning and participation. Usually, if a potential applicant has been in a US institution of higher learning for more than two years, he or she is exempt from undertaking the TOEFL test.

Difficulties Encountered by Chinese Students

Foreign students encounter a broad range of difficulties when applying for admission to a US college. First, the language requirements demanded by US institutions tend to disadvantage prospective Chinese students who are not native speakers of the English language. They demand that a new student undertakes an English test, preferably IELTS and TOEFL, before he or she can be admitted (Mijares).

Second, the application process is lengthy and rigorous. Chinese students are required to provide detailed information regarding their academic and family background for preliminary processing. Since their understanding of the English language is low, they struggle to fill the application forms.

Moreover, new immigrants may not understand the United States’ educational system, which differs greatly from the Chinese one. For instance, the Chinese language proficiency test is not mandatory for visiting senior students. In contrast, all students joining US institutions must take an English language proficiency test. The differences between the US and Chinese admission requirements are summarized in the table below.

Table 4: Summary

United States Chinese
A minimum of TOEFL CBT score of 243 TOEFL ITP test scores above 500
A minimum of TOEFL PBT score of 590 TOEIC above 550
A minimum of IELTS score of 6.5 IELTS 5.5
A minimum TOEFL iBT score of 92 TOEFL iBT test scores above 61

Source: SEVIS

The ‘Consultancy’ Industry: Current Recruitment Trends

Most academic institutions lack the capacity (time and resources) to recruit foreign students. In this regard, third party agents have become popular in student recruitment. Before being admitted to a United States college or university, Chinese students use consultants to help them complete the long and complicated application process.

Chinese students usually employ the services of consulting firms, which facilitate their entry into institutions of their choice. This section will discuss two consultancy companies: ‘Futureworks’ consulting company services and College Transition Consultancy Company.

Most consulting firms usually link with overseas or international students to help with admission-related issues. Even though a good number of public institutions of higher learning institutions usually organize seminars, they put some information about the application process and other guidelines on their websites.

However, given that the demand for US education is high, they usually employ additional staff or contract consultants to help them. Most public institutions usually employ at least one consultant (Lin Para. 7). This means that the hired person cannot meet the demand of most students, forcing them to hire private consultants to help with their application processes.

In most cases, consultants will always indicate to the client that they do not have any special influence with the admitting institution of higher learning. Specifically, their help in the application process is confined to organizational aspects and guidance, not writing everything for the applicants. When it comes to correspondence, they usually encourage students to write application letters in their words and handwriting.

Specific Examples

‘Futureworks’ consulting is owned jointly by Sharon Buckmaster and Diana Larsen. It was founded in 1993. The company is based in Portland, Oregon in the United States. Futureworks usually interviews applicants as part of the process. They have been operating in China for more than two years now. This means that they are highly experienced in the admission system.

In terms of undergraduate admission, they usually help with the university selection procedure, advice on how to write and review application essays, general application review, and refinement of personal statements. In terms of postgraduate studies, ‘Futureworks’ usually works with prospective students in many ways, including advice on Ph.D. and Masters Level programs in any field of specialization.

A second recruitment firm is the College Transitions Consultancy Company. Andrew Belasco, Dave Bergman, and Michael Trivette own this firm. It is based in Athens, Georgia. The firm offers different types of services to clients.

First, ‘College Transitions’ offers a preliminary review, whereby it helps students to review their transcripts (grades and courses), extracurricular activities, and standardized test scores. Also, the agency discusses admission matters or strategies with students, emphasizing on the things they can do to improve their chances of admission.

The agency also offers a career review. After a preliminary review, the company usually discusses with students on how to identify their styles, interests, and preferences. Normally, this kind of knowledge helps potential students to select their preferred majors, career paths, and courses. They also administer online tests, which last about thirty to forty-five minutes. The results are used to help students make the right choices regarding their preferred courses.

After discussing with the students and enlisting their choices and preferences, the company compiles a list of programs and courses that match with the interests of the potential applicants as well as the admission standards of the admitting institution. The company also advises students on the types of standardized tests that would increase their chances of gaining admission into a preferred university. Some of the testing approaches encompass Scholastic Assessment Tests and International English Language Testing System.

In recent years, an important part of the application process into United States Colleges and Universities includes a student activity sheet. The company helps students to draft a very clear and concise resume that reflects their undertaking in and outside class. College Transition Consultancy also advises students on how and where to get instructors, career counselors, and sponsors/supervisors of extracurricular activities to guide them on how to write highly appealing recommendation letters.

Future Growth Patterns and Trends

Social Media

As the number of Chinese students who want to study in the US continues to increase, more consultancy firms will employ different strategies to promote America’s institutions. In this view, four emerging trends are likely to dominate this industry in the future. First, most US institutions use agents and social media to reach out to prospective students in other countries.

This approach is fast, cost-effective, and can be personalized (Lin Para. 8). Institutions also use international alumni to connect with foreign students. In this regard, universities are likely to rely on referrals to recruit new international students. Social media is another resource that institutions will use to reach out to international alumni and expand their international networks.

Collaborative Marketing

Collaborative marketing is another potential recruitment approach that universities will use. Currently, various universities in some states such as Ohio have formed a consortium that markets the programs offered by the individual institutions to foreign students (Frolik Para. 8). This approach is cost-effective and “allows even smaller colleges to reach out to students around the world” (Samantha Para. 2).

As aforementioned, social media has emerged as an effective student recruitment tool for many US institutions. An example is Brock University, which uses QQ (a Chinese chat program) for marketing itself.

According to an interview on the Brock News, Weinjie Deng, the university’s marketing manager in China said that QQ and Renren are “good ways to connect with students, who prefer to chat informally via chatting instead of sending email” (Samantha Para. 2).

Deng further said that most users ask questions related to “accommodation, courses, tuition, and campus location” (Samantha Para. 3). She sums up by lauding this approach because “it shows that we care enough about them to make an effort to reach out to them” (Samantha Para. 3). The success of this approach indicates that, in the future, many institutions will use social media platforms and consortiums to connect with international students.

Works Cited

Bartlett, T. and Karin, F. The China Conundrum. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2011. Web.

Choudaha, R. and Li C. 2012, Trends in International Student Mobility. Web.

Fischer, K. China props up foreign students’ numbers in U.S.: The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2010. Web.

Frolik, C. Colleges enrolling record number of international students: Many of international scholars are from China. 2011. Web.

Green, M. and Adelaide, F. 2011, Internationalization of U.S. Higher Education in a Time of Declining Resources. Web.

Institute of International Education [IIE] 2013, Top 25 Places of Origin of International Students, 2011/12-2012/13: Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Web.

Lin, V. Chinese students pour into the United States: US-China Today. 2010. Web.

Marklein, M. U.S. colleges’ appeal fading for foreign students: USA Today. 2011. Web.

Mijares, Al. Understanding education in China: Leadership. Association of California School Administrators. 2009. Web.

Samantha, W. The Brock News, Brock uses China’s vast social media to recruit students. 2011. Web.

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