Transforming China from within: Chinese Students Head to American Universities

The PRC has become the largest exporter of students around the world.
September 22, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on September 22, 2014.

Beijing—China’s economy is growing. So is the country’s university system. However, the latter still lags behind the U.S. and other Western nations. With few spots available at top schools, Chinese students increasingly are heading to America for higher education.

While recently playing tourist in Beijing I spoke to a number of young Chinese. They tend to be bright and inquisitive, ambitious and nationalistic. They worry about finding good jobs and are irritated by government restrictions on their freedom. For many the U.S. offers the yellow brick road to the fabled Emerald City. This educational exodus benefits Americans as well as Chinese.

The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most populous nation with, by some calculations, the world’s largest economy. It continues to gain international influence. Much depends on where the PRC is headed.

But no one knows where that is. Economic problems loom: official growth rates are overstated, “ghost” cities abound, overextended banks threaten, state enterprises distort development. The “one child” policy has created a demographic cliff: the PRC’s workforce is shrinking and China might grow old before it grows rich.

Chinese politics also is unsettled. President Xi Jinping launched a far‐​reaching campaign against corruption and targeted a number of party potentates. However, observers disagree whether he is becoming a modern emperor or facing a dramatic fall.

Despite the unsettled environment at home, Beijing has become more assertive, even confrontational, abroad. China has increasingly challenged several of its neighbors over contested territories in the Sea of Japan and South China Sea. The PRC’s relations with North Korea and Taiwan are even more complicated. Most important, Beijing is no longer willing to defer to the U.S.

However, China’s global influence depends upon domestic economic growth and political stability. And that ultimately depends upon China’s young. Do they want open markets or state leadership for the economy? Do they want a liberal or an authoritarian society? Do they want continued peaceful international rise or are they prepared to risk war to achieve national ends?

China’s university students today are most likely to become the PRC’s leaders tomorrow. Beijing is investing about $250 billion annually in higher education. Over the last decade the number of universities has doubled to more than 2400. The number of college graduates has increased to seven million, a four‐​fold jump over the same period. The comparable U.S. number is roughly three million. About nine percent of Chinese adults now have some college education, more than twice the percentage in 2000. Beijing hopes to push that figure to more than 15 percent by 2020. (A third of Americans possess bachelor’s degrees.)

Of course, as American students well know, a college education doesn’t guarantee a job, let alone a well‐​paying job. Recent Chinese graduates suffer from a 16 percent unemployment rate and the wage premium for university grads has fallen over the last decade by 19 percent.

Many others are underemployed. Recent graduate Wu Xiuyan told the Wall Street Journal: “My classmates and I want to find jobs in banks or foreign‐​trade companies, but the reality is that we can’t find positions that match our education.” One problem is the nature of Chinese economic growth, which remains concentrated on construction and manufacturing rather than services—leaving fewer accounting, engineering, and legal positions, for instance. A recent survey found that 70 percent of new graduates were earning less than the average wage for migrant factory workers. Nevertheless, young Chinese still are better off with a college degree than not. The better their education, the more likely they are to get one of the more desirable existing jobs.

Indeed, the Chinese government, which remains heavily involved in the economy, is emphasizing seven national development priorities, most of which will require more college graduates: alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, bio technology, advanced information technologies, high end equipment manufacturing, and new energy vehicles. Western nations also are emphasizing some of the same areas. In fact, doing so won’t improve economic growth. To the contrary, government control sacrifices economics for politics. Even so, these jobs also will require new and better skills.

However, while the number of universities in China is growing, few have national, let alone international, reputations. Undoubtedly that will change over time. Richard Levin, Yale University’s president, said in 2010: “In 25 years, only a generation’s time, these universities could rival the Ivy League.” Today, however, with only a handful of top schools, competition for the few available spots is extraordinary. To attend college Chinese students must take the Gaokao entrance exam. One’s score determines which school one attends.

For instance, Peking and Tsinghua Universities are the only Chinese universities among the world’s top 100. They have space for just 6000 new students a year. That’s less than one‐​twentieth of one percent of Gaokao takers, noted my friend Phil Sheldon, Senior Director at the University Foundation Education Instruction Centre, which prepares Chinese students for education in America.

The fact that access to these two schools, as well as other good institutions—such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Fudan University, Nanjing University, University of Science and Technology China, and Zhejiang University—is limited increases the role of influence and money. Alas, education is not exempt from the corruption which pervades the economy. Complained Helen Gao, a graduate student at Harvard, China has “created a system that discriminates against its less wealthy and well‐​connected citizens, thwarting social mobility at every step with bureaucratic and financial barriers.”

Obviously, far more Chinese students could succeed, indeed thrive, at fine universities. The Chinese passion for education, both familial and cultural, is legendary. So more than 400,000 young Chinese are heading abroad every year. Indeed, the PRC has become the largest exporter of students around the world. The number studying abroad has more than quadrupled since 2001. Many Chinese students now travel to Hong Kong to take the SAT rather than stay at home for the GaoKao.

The process has become easier since the Chinese government increasingly accommodates students who desire to study overseas. In Beijing and Shanghai public high schools are opening international departments to assist students in doing so. Schools in other cities have announced plans to do the same. Indeed, in 2011 President Hu Jintao admitted: “While people receive a good education, there are significant gaps compared to the advanced international level.” The daughter of his successor, President Xi Jinping, attended Harvard University.

The U.S. remains the favored destination of Chinese students. Obviously there are many good schools around the world. But the U.S. retains a significant educational advantage, hosting 13 of the 20 best rated universities on earth. Beyond the very best are a great variety of quality institutions, ranging from elite private to inexpensive public. William Bennett wrote about meeting Chinese parents who expected their infant children to attend American schools. Bennett added: “to the Chinese people, American universities, for all of their shortcomings and blemishes, are still beacons of freedom, individualism and self‐​improvement. To them, our universities are emblems of the highest achievement.”

While some U.S. universities are building campuses in the PRC, the more obvious opportunity is to go to America. Many American colleges are working to attract foreign students. Foreigners make up more than one‐​fifth of the students at five universities. The percentage reaches 29 percent at New York’s New School. Half of foreign students come from the PRC, India, and South Korea.

The largest number, about one‐​fourth, are Chinese. The number of Chinese student visas jumped from 98,000 to 128,000 from 2009 to 2010. There were 235,000 Chinese students in America during the 2012–2013 school year. In the past most Chinese students were in graduate school, but the share of undergraduates has been increasing—up more than nine fold from 2005 to 2012. Ever more Chinese students are looking for better educational options than are available at home.

Chinese students are looking both to reputation and quality. U.S. universities offer a greater variety of courses, making it easier to specialize. They also provide an education more attuned to the global economy in which China is expanding its role. Going to school in America provides a window to American and Western society. Schools are more likely to impart new, sophisticated skills: critical thinking, Western values and mores, foreign cultures. Moreover, such schooling provides valuable personal and business contacts, economic knowledge and ideas, and new opportunities.

Chinese students with this training are more likely to get jobs. PRC schools are improving, but as yet most simply don’t match the best overseas. Observed Giles Chance, a consultant at Peking University: “A Chinese graduate from a second tier university is not the equal of an American in language skills and cultural familiarity.” A foreign degree is particularly helpful for the three of ten Chinese students who remain overseas. Chen Yuyu of Peking University observed: “High‐​end jobs that should have been produced by industrialization, including research, marketing and accounting, etc., have been left in the West.” Those companies most desire employees with a Western‐​oriented education.

So do foreign companies doing business in China. For them a Chinese citizen educated abroad is the best possible employee, with Western‐​oriented skills and Chinese‐​oriented understanding. However, even Chinese students destined to work in China gain an advantage from U.S. schooling that sets them apart from their competitors: a prestige degree, additional skills, ideas for business opportunities and practices.

Of course, while many Chinese students are capable of succeeding at foreign universities, many find foreign study difficult. Without preparation, few are able to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and SAT/ACT (college admission) exams. Moreover, differences in culture and language, as well as educational practices and student participation, are enormous.

The greater interest in U.S. universities has sparked a predictable market reaction: creation of companies dedicated to helping students prepare. For instance, my American friend works for UFEIC, a Toronto‐​based company created by an ethnic Chinese Canadian citizen. The firm focuses on attendance in U.S. and Canadian universities. UFEIC encourages students to take a gap year for study and employs an international workforce. The company also likes to conscript volunteer speakers, like me, who pass through Beijing.

Collectively the rise in Chinese studying overseas has enormous implications. Over time, the PRC could develop the largest global reservoir of well‐​educated workers. With China facing increasing economic challenges, including a shrinking work force because of the country’s skewed demographic structure, upgrading workers’ educations may be the best strategy to spur economic growth. Doing so also could transform the global economy.

This is good for America. Chinese students deliver $24 billion to the U.S economy. In 2013 Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan declared: “The connections made during international education experiences last a lifetime. International students enrich classrooms, campuses and communities in ways that endure long after students return to their home countries. We continue to welcome more international students to their campuses and to do more to make study abroad a reality for all of their students.”

Moreover, educating many of China’s future leaders is more likely to lead to better bilateral relations and a more peaceful future. Attending American colleges won’t turn Chinese into Americans, but will yield many personal friendships and business relationships. Schooling in the U.S. also is likely to create a better understanding of and appreciation for American values and society. Individual friendships make it harder to demonize an entire people.

A common educational experience also may encourage a more liberal international vision. Western schooling certainly does not guarantee humane views—Cambodia’s Pol Pot received a technical education in France and North Korea’s Kim Jong‐​un attended prep school in Switzerland. However, in the main a U.S. university education is more likely to reinforce the independent impulses evident in so many Chinese students today. They still will be Chinese patriots (and likely quite nationalistic in the eyes of most Americans). But Western‐​educated Chinese may be more likely to appreciate if not share U.S. worldviews and objectives. At least, the possibility is there.

The U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st Century. Both nations have an incentive to work through the inevitable disagreements and make cooperation rather than confrontation the hallmark of their relationship. While there’s no panacea to make that happen, the growing number of Chinese attending U.S. universities is a hopeful sign. That will benefit China. It also likely will benefit America.

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