China becomes a harder sell for lesser-known US colleges

While some big-name US universities have seen more applications from Chinese students this year, lesser known institutions are less popular than before COVID. US recruiters working in China attribute the decline to the pandemic-related border closures as well as shifts in US-China relations.

Six months after China began allowing foreigners back into the country (January 2020) following the closure of its borders for almost three years because of COVID-19, American universities and colleges recruiters, especially those representing small colleges and lesser known universities, face much more difficult terrain than they did in the fall of 2019.

That year, 372,532 Chinese students attended American colleges and universities, an increase of 24% since 2014. In 2021, the last year for which we have complete figures, the number had fallen to 317,299 – a 15.2% drop in undergraduates and a 13.3% drop for graduate students.

The decline is driven by a number of factors, not all of which impact every college or university.

The first is that for three years most US college recruiters were unable to recruit in person because China’s Zero-COVID policy required that the country’s borders remain closed.

The second factor is the deteriorating diplomatic relationship between the US and China.

At the end of May, for example, the South China Morning Post quoted a report from Xinhua, China’s state news agency, in which president Xi Jinping is reported to have told the National Security Commission that China was facing “considerably more complex and much more difficult” security issues and to be ready for “worst-case and most extreme scenarios” that include “high winds and waves and even perilous storms”.

“It’s challenging,” says Shawn Moore, who is a recruiter for Bard College, a liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, 100 miles north of New York City, and has lived in China for eight years. “While some big-name universities like Harvard or Stanford have seen more applications from China this year, overall there has been a slight decline.

“The trend line is going to be continuing in that direction,” he predicts, “because of two things. In particular, one is that over the three years of COVID, university reps couldn’t visit China. Second, of course, are the US-China relations that affect parents’ decisions on where they’d like their children to apply to school”.

A further complication for small colleges and some smaller universities, both Shawn and other recruiters told University World News, is that they do not participate in the rankings of US News and World Report or the QS.

Educational quality

Even though Chinese students studying in the US will have access to media that is banned in China and will be exposed to an American political system that is heavily criticised by Chinese media, the government of China still supports sending students overseas.

According to Melissa Warehall, head of college counselling at Daystar Academy in Beijing, and as previously reported by University World News, in his New Year’s message, Xi said that both the government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) favour “students studying abroad because they then bring back technology, skills and intellectual work valuable for China’s continued development”.

Both Moore and Wang Shi (Shiny), vice-principal of Tsinghua International School Daoxiang Lake (Beijing) and special advisor of the United States State Department (Education USA), say that Chinese parents send their children abroad, and specifically to the United States, because they do not want to settle for second-tier universities

Universities like Tsinghua University (Beijing), Beijing University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Zhejiang University (in Hangzhou, 100 miles southwest of Shanghai) are first-rate. Access to them is, however, severely limited both because of the university’s size relative to the cohort, and because of the grades on the National College Entrance Exam (Gaokao) that are required to get into these elite schools.

While the Gaokao “tries to be meritocratic … it remains largely based on the old imperial examination system. It shuts out a lot of different ways of thinking and learning. So you have a very monochromatic type of student that makes it to the top of that system”, says Moore.

China’s second-tier universities, Shiny told University World News, “don’t have a very good reputation”.

The importance of reputation

According to Moore, students who go overseas for university education fall into two categories. The first is those students who do not make it into China’s elite universities but are still excellent students. “The second group, really a subgroup of the first, are those that just prefer the education style aboard. They see US schools as the best in the world.”

Shiny provides a gloss on the question of education style when she tells me that the standard Chinese teaching lecture-based methodology is held by many to be “not enough to cater to the faster pace of changing society and technology”. She singles out communication and critical thinking skills as well as intercultural competencies as areas where Chinese university education does not measure up to American universities and colleges.

“I think that students need these kinds of softer skills for problem solving and that the only way they can learn them is in university and college. They [parents] believe that their children should study overseas to have more access to them,” he says.

Both Shiny and Moore underscore the importance of the reputation of the university and how schools that are not ranked by US News and World Report and are not well-known are disadvantaged.

“Everyone knows Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, University of Texas at Austin, University of Michigan, University of Virginia,” says Moore. “I’m thinking of schools like SUNY Albany [State University of New York] that would not be on the radar because they’re not part of the cultural set that we see in [Hollywood] movies.

“The impact on these schools of not being ranked is greater,” says the Bard College representative, who also tells me that schools like Bard and Reed College (Portland, Oregon) and Colorado College (Colorado Springs) can be tougher sells because they do not take part in US News and World Report’s rankings.

“Because of its name many Chinese parents assume that US News and World Report is an official ranking prepared by the US government. This is even more true after COVID, after three years when college and university representatives have not been in schools and students and parents have been doing their research online. So they’re just kind of going down the list of the top 50 schools and the students in the cohort are applying to the same schools.

“The result is an increase in selectivity by these schools. And so, a lot of students come up short with no options at all. I’ve had five or six counsellors reach out to me and talk about what has never happened before: students who applied to 20 schools and didn’t get into a single one. The selectivity has gone up dramatically, at least in terms of the Chinese student population for the top 50. Beneath that, applications have dropped.”

Parental bragging rights

A week after I interviewed Warehall, she was leading a group of 15 students who will graduate next year on a tour of US universities.

Before doing so, however, she met with parents and students to do what she called a “reality check”.

“They give me the list of schools, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge, and think their child is going to get into one of those prestigious schools. Then I show them the admission rates, that your child has a 97% chance of hearing bad news from any one of the Ivies plus (Ivy league + institutions like Stanford, MIT and Berkeley). They don’t believe it. They just say ‘Well, of course my child will get into Harvard, even though he has straight B’s and C’s’.

“Their purpose in going overseas is not for them to stay abroad per se, but to come back to China and get good jobs,” said Warehall who, after a 40-year career, first as director of admissions at the DePaul University’s Theatre School conservatory and at the University of Chicago, where she was assistant director of admissions, moved to Beijing.

According to Moore, this desire “plays back to the ranking question because future employers will look at their CVs and recognise the name of the school. Businesses in China don’t have the time to research every school; they just go down the list of the top 50”.

For his part, Shiny adds two points, the first of which shows just how important university rankings and the prospects of employability are in Chinese society.

“In Shanghai or Beijing and other large cities, there are human resource departments that can offer residency permits based on regulations that say that kids who got an education from QS or US News and World Report top-ranked schools can have their local residency in the city because they got a bachelor or masters degree from, for example, Columbia or maybe Cornell University. If you want to work in Shanghai, you are not like [local] migrants; you can have Shanghai local residency because you have a very good background of higher education from top-ranked schools.”

The second point is the parents’ sense of face or honour, says Shiny. In North America this is registered by car decals that say, for example, Princeton or University of Pennsylvania and a bumper sticker like the one that says, “My kids and money both go to Harvard”.

In China, Shiny says, having their children go to top American schools (those known to be in the top 50 in rankings) allows parents to brag, as do American parents, about the schools their children get into.

Fears of gun violence

For some parents, however, caution rather than concern for face (honour or respect) has become more prevalent, as CCTV (Central China Television), China’s state media, and China World Daily cover story after story about school shootings and other gun violence in the United States.

According to Warehall, much more important than frosty international relations is the worry that gun violence is rampant in America. “Are they going to send their child to an American city where that child will be shot dead?”

Even after explaining to parents that she lived in Chicago for 40 years and had not encountered any violence, Warehall explains, one parent refused to allow his daughter to apply to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is one of the best art schools in the world.

“‘No, I won’t send her to Chicago’,” he said. “The parents don’t understand why America is so much more violent than any other developed country in the world or that there are ways to keep yourself safe in any city in the US,” chiefly by not going to dangerous neighbourhoods.

Such fears can push parents to consider sending their children to universities in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. One of Warehall’s students who wanted to study education ended up at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) while other students have applied to McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario), the Ontario College of Art and Design (Toronto) and Emily Carr University of Art and Design (Vancouver).

Government tolerance

Given the tensions between the United States and China, and the obvious ways in which being educated in the United States (or, for that matter, Britain, Australia, New Zealand or Canada) can lead students to question and even reject the political orthodoxy of the CCP, why does China continues to send hundreds of thousands of students overseas? This policy seems very much at odds with a number of reforms of primary and secondary education undertaken by Xi’s government.

Under Xi, China has barred the enrolment of Chinese nationals in international schools that teach a non-Chinese curriculum.

Further, says Moore, “Scrutiny of international curricula has increased since the Xi era began, with more oversight, reviewing and revising things, and more strictly enforced bans on subjects like US history. Recent [proposed] reforms have even hinted at removing English as a mandatory subject. Overall, the attitude has become unwelcoming to international education at the grade and secondary levels.”

The main reason China allows students to go overseas can be summed up in the phrase, “reason of state.” More specifically, Chinese officials are interested in developing a cadre with the most up-to-date technical knowledge. And this can best be acquired in American universities such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard.

The second reason China’s officials “tolerate parents sending their children overseas is as a sort of pressure valve for the elite, those who have the means to give the best education they can to their own children”, Moore says. “Yet, if certain [officials] had their druthers, there wouldn’t be any foreign education and Chinese students would follow a Chinese-approved curriculum.”

For the time being, with more than 300,000 students studying in the United States and according to the Chinese government, another 630,000 studying in other countries, Chinese officials are unable to undertake a granular investigation of every school or programme, which explains why students are able to enrol in colleges like Bard, which not only teach the liberal arts but are known for fostering liberal political positions.

Referring to the more than 300,000 Chinese students in the US, Moore says, “It’s a stupendous number. And the government is certainly ambivalent, even highly ambivalent about it. They recognise that there are still areas where they can benefit greatly from sending their top talent to these institutions.

“They are okay with the sciences and with students coming to study at the Bard US-Chinese Music Institute [which is partnered with the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing]. When it comes to the social sciences or political studies, they’re much more ambivalent,” says Moore.