Chinese students in the United States – A micro study

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the flagship campus in the Illinois public higher education system – ranking number 25 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities – is seeing a huge uptick in the number of undergraduate students from China. Numbers have increased from fewer than 20 first-year students in 2006 to more than 600 – about 10% of the first-year class.

This increase is indicative of a trend. Many more undergraduate students, especially from China but also from other countries including Saudi Arabia and Brazil, are applying to American universities whereas in the past graduate and professional students dominated international enrolments.

As is common in public American universities, international students pay about twice as much in tuition fees as an Illinois resident – about US$31,000 per year plus housing and other expenses. All international students at Urbana-Champaign bring in US$211 million to the university – around 25% of what is paid by all students, with nearly half that amount from China.

A revealing, detailed article in the Chicago Tribune, “U of I opens arms to eager Chinese students” (3 August 2014) raises – but does not answer – many of the key questions relating to the dramatic growth in the number of undergraduate students, especially from China, now studying in the United States.

Why the expansion?

There are push and pull factors.

On the pull side, there seem to be two essential elements, both illustrated in the Illinois case. The most important is money. American public universities have seen their budgets cut in recent years, and some of them have sought to attract international students to balance their budgets.

While administrators quoted in the Tribune article talk about broad internationalisation goals, the importance of engagement with China and the need to provide a diverse campus experience for their American students, money is the bottom line – international students provide significant income.

Several American university systems, notably Washington and the State University of New York, have been quite open about internationalisation as an income generation strategy. Other countries, most notably Australia and the United Kingdom, have long seen international students as a key source of income.

The University of Illinois also has had problems attracting local students – the numbers of students from Illinois is down, leaving empty desks for international students.

On the push side, as quoted in the Tribune article, many middle-class Chinese young people are unhappy with the infamous gaokao national university entrance exam and some opt out by choosing to study abroad. It is also the case, although not mentioned in the article, that some Chinese students whose gaokao scores are not quite good enough for the top Chinese universities go abroad rather than attending a less prestigious Chinese university.

Apparently, the Scholastic Aptitude Test – SAT – which is required by the University of Illinois, is less arduous than the gaokao, even though it is in English and not offered in China itself so students must go to Taiwan, Hong Kong or elsewhere to take the SAT.

Although Chinese students will find the vistas of corn fields to the horizon and the clean air of a small American college town quite a change, most seem to choose the University of Illinois because of its high ranking in the global university league tables – a university’s status is influential in deciding where to study.

The university also has strengths in areas of interest to Chinese students – engineering, business, statistics and the sciences generally.

Admissions issues and English competency

The University of Illinois admits 38% of its international applicants – compared to 70% of Illinois residents. The chances for a Chinese student to be admitted to Illinois are much better than being admitted to a top Chinese university.

The university says that it does not use paid recruiters or agents – unlike many American institutions – and that international applicants are subject to the same requirements as domestic students.

Illinois also does not contract with ‘pathway’ or other similar programmes, usually operated by for-profit companies such as INTO or Kaplan, that offer year-long preparation and English language improvement for individuals aspiring to a US degree programme. The University of Illinois recruits its international students through its own channels.

Regardless of the recruitment strategy, several issues loom large in the international, especially in the Chinese, market.

Plagiarism, intensive ‘coaching’ and other questionable practices are common in preparing admissions materials. Cheating is widespread, as is faking documents. Some experienced observers estimate that well over half of applications from China are to some degree tainted.

The College Board, which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test, does not offer the examination in mainland China. Applicants to Illinois, for example, must go to Hong Kong or elsewhere to take the test.

Competency in English is also a significant problem for international students. The standard tests may not accurately measure the skills needed for success in the classroom. Lack of competence in oral and written English is common among international students.

Illinois claims that 94% of entering Chinese freshmen go on to the second year – a higher proportion than for Illinois residents. Given the common problems of both language and cheating on applications, this success rate is very impressive.

Care and feeding

International students, on the one hand, are a valuable resource for American universities – not only financially but because they bring a needed diversity to campus.

The potential benefits are rarely exploited. Few American universities successfully integrate international students into the undergraduate student population. Many simply do not try, while others lack funding, personnel and experience.

Staff and strategies are especially important when large numbers of students from one country, such as China, are on the campus. International students tend to ‘ghetto-ise’ themselves. Successful integration requires careful planning, programmes that bring domestic students together and campus staff trained in cross-cultural programming, with sensitivity to the issues involved.

When integrated, international students can bring a global awareness and perspective to American students who often have little experience of the rest of the world.

At the same time, universities that enrol large numbers of international students need to be attentive their needs.

Trained staff to help with both academic and personal issues are required. Food service must make adjustments for a range of preferences, from halal to rice. Programmes to perfect English proficiency and writing skills – needs not limited to international students – may need expanding.


The University of Illinois seems to have started out thinking about undergraduate Chinese students as a source of income. They soon realised that to be successful with international students, planning, care and attention were needed.

To the university’s credit, innovative programmes, such as orientation programmes for new students in Shanghai, have been developed.

All, however, is not rosy. No one is talking about likely challenges in the admissions process or about a possible over-reliance on students from one country.

Clearly, there are both costs and benefits with internationalisation, and all too often academic institutions tend to overemphasise the latter while ignoring many of the former.

* Philip G Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States.