The Pearl River Delta has long been an area of economic opportunity. It was one of the first areas opened to Western investment after Deng Xiaoping initiated his economic reforms in the late 1970s. This emphasis on the modernization of China also extended to education. Deng Xiaoping encouraged Chinese students to study abroad and then bring their experiences back to their homeland to continue to make China prosperous. Over thirty-five years later, the dream of gaining an overseas education is still a goal for many Chinese students.
Guangdong is the wealthiest province in China, contributing approximately 12.5% of national economic output, and has enjoyed double digit GDP growth for more than 20 years. As a result, Guangdong’s residents have the wealth necessary to pay for their children to study abroad. Due to China’s one-child policy, many families are willing to invest large portions of their income in their only child’s education. Though Guangdong residents account for only 1/13th of the total Chinese population, they comprise a fourth of all students who study abroad. Many Cantonese now believe that the opportunity for further growth and development lies in education. Total higher education enrollment has increased from 6.5% in 1995 to almost a third of all secondary schooling graduates today1. More and more middle-class Guangdong residents are able to afford an American education, and U.S. institutions of higher learning are fast realizing the potential of this Southern Chinese market.
Many in China believe that a college degree is crucial for upward mobility, but Chinese public institutions of higher education can no longer keep up with the demand. Private universities in China are often less established, and regarded as inferior to government-run institutions. However, even those universities well-regarded in China lag behind in world higher-education rankings. These inadequacies in higher education are even more evident considering that China often tops the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) world secondary education ratings. Even though in 2009 Shanghai was ranked number one by Pisa in reading, mathematics and science, the results for higher education are not as stellar. In a ranking by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, no Chinese institutions appear in the world’s top 200 universities. The Time’s Higher Education Supplement ranked Peking University 49th in its World University rankings for 2011-2012. Tsinghua, often seen as China’s MIT equivalent, ranked 71st overall.
The rising preference for out-of-country education options is evidenced by exam registration. The number of students taking the National College Entrance Exam (NCEE) has decreased steadily since 2008. A total of one million fewer students sat the NCEE between the 2009 and 2010 test years. This drop in part is due to the declining birth rate. The number of Chinese between the ages of 18 and 22 years of age will fall by 40 million in the coming decade. However, most analysts believe this drop in NCEE registration is mostly due to the high demand for overseas education2.
Though Chinese students studying in the U.S. have traditionally chosen majors in the hard sciences, this too is beginning to change. Chinese students are increasingly choosing liberal arts disciplines for the flexibility they provide. Students can freely study many subjects rather than being forced to study only one area as is the case at many Chinese and American Universities. This shift in education preferences has opened the door for many liberal arts institutions to expand their recruiting efforts in China.
Other staples of American education are reacting to the increased demand to study at American universities. This year marks the first year that the SAT will be administered in mainland China outside of the academic school year. In the past, to even sit the SAT, Chinese students had to travel abroad, usually to South Korea or Hong Kong. Currently, the SAT will only be offered through the National Society for the Gifted and Talented (NSGT) University Prep program, but the offering is indicative of overall demand from parents and students for further opportunities to enter the American education system.
An American degree is also thought to give graduates a leg-up in the competitive Chinese job market. An estimated 23 percent of the 6.5 million of 2011 graduates from Chinese universities remain unemployed4. Some Chinese families are even taking their desire for an American education a step further by sending their children to the U.S. to attend high school. Many Chinese parents see sending their child to an American high school as a way to ensure acceptance into an American university, as the children can take AP classes and necessary college entry courses, all the while improving their English abilities.
The number of Chinese students studying abroad hit record highs last year. An estimated 1.27 million Chinese were studying in foreign colleges or universities in 2011.
In this past year alone, over 284,000 students left China to study abroad. Of those, 93% were self-funded5.
The number of foreign students in the United States continues to grow, reaching almost 700,000 students in the 2009-2010 school year. One of the largest increases was that in the sector of undergraduate matriculation.
The enrollment of undergraduate Chinese students in 2010 was up 43% from the previous year, while the total number of Chinese studying in the United States increased by 30%, edging out Indians as the largest foreign student group6. The number of students from China is increasing every year, as are the number of Chinese applicants. In 2012, a full half of all applicants wishing to enter U.S. graduate programs were Chinese.
The number of Chinese students enrolled at U.S. universities increased twenty-three per cent in the 2010/2011 school year to 158,000 students. These students constitute nearly twenty-two per cent of the entire international student population.
With the large influx of Chinese students comes great fiscal, as well as educational opportunity. It is estimated that if it weren’t for Chinese foreign student enrollment, American universities would have seen their total international enrollments shrink. The global economic downturn has hit many families hard, forcing many foreign students to give up their dreams of an American education and return to schooling in their home countries. This is not the case in China, however, where a degree from the U.S. is still viewed by many parents as their child’s best bet at getting ahead in the competitive Chinese market.
Due to China’s “One Child Only” policy, Chinese families have more to spend on the needs of their only child. In addition, Chinese families are much more inclined to spend money on education than on luxury items. According to William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, In China, “the disposable income of a middle-class family is more likely to be spent on education than leisure or entertainment”. Whereas four or five years ago almost all Chinese students required scholarships, now about sixty per cent of students pay full tuition. In total, the market value of degrees currently being obtained by Chinese students at American universities is five billion US dollars. With U.S. universities facing some of the worst financial pressure in decades, Chinese students are helping to assuage the fiscal constraints created by the global economic downturn.
As China becomes the key destination for college recruiters of international education, especially in cosmopolitan areas such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, education providers should seek more opportunities in second and third-tier cities where there is more room for development and less competition. Dongguan, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai are all developing South Chinese markets with a high demand for international education.
Education recruiters are also looking to non-traditional sources to provide Chinese students with an American education. The newest phenomenon in the education market is e-learning, or Internet schools. Many Chinese families now have computers and internet access at home, and many U.S. universities are beginning to explore the new market opportunities that online schools can provide.