How Chinese Families Select Overseas Universities

It is always difficult to understand exactly how applicants decide where to apply: what is the relative importance of rankings, reputation, cost, program details, location, etc? Determining which of these factors to emphasize in your marketing materials is an art, not a science, based on understanding what motivates your ideal applicant.

The challenge when recruiting Chinese students, however, is that they have a different set of motivations. Some of these overlap with their overseas counterparts but many do not. Some are non-issues for a non-Chinese applicant. Given these differences, it’s important to understand the mindset of the typical Chinese applicant – only then can you be sure that your marketing messages will hit their intended mark.

Based on conversations with thousands of Chinese students and their parents, I’m confident that six issues dominate their selection process:

  1. Country. Very few Chinese families look at schools in more than one country. Said differently, they tend to choose the country first, and then start looking at specific schools. I think that this is primarily because the admissions requirements and application calendar vary greatly across countries. Based on the statistics, most Chinese families prefer the United States. They generally assume that the education is “better”, and that it will be easier for their child to find a job back in China with that degree. When they look at other countries, it’s typically because they already have relatives or friends in that country.Given the popularity of the United States, and my own background, many of the examples below are from American programs.
  2. Brand awareness. Chinese students and parents pay attention to brands. They are heavily influenced by word of mouth – by whether they have “heard of” the school. This is somewhat similar to the fact that some Americans think that schools with a famous football team are of high quality, even though many American educators beg to differ. In China, it’s safe to say that the “famous” Ivy League schools are all well known (meaning Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia) as well as MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, and the National University of Singapore. Schools that have been accepting hundreds of Chinese students for years (such as Iowa State and Hong Kong University) are also well known in China.But other excellent overseas schools are not well known at all. Even more surprising is that schools that are not especially well known in their home country can be very well-known in China, primarily due to aggressive marketing in China by these schools and/or their agents. In short, overseas schools should not assume that the “brand awareness” they enjoy in their home country exists in China.
  3. US News ranking (or the relevant local ranking). When looking at American programs, Chinese students and their parents are extraordinarily focused on a school’s US News & World Report ranking, specifically the “National Universities” list, and the “Top Graduate Schools” listings. Chinese parents don’t really understand what the other lists mean (such as “Liberal Arts College,” “Master’s – North,” etc).The Chinese name for ‘US News’ makes it sound as if it is an official government ranking, rather than a ranking from a magazine. This confusion is compounded by the fact that in China, private-sector rankings of colleges and graduate programs do not exist. Instead, the government issues its own ranking of undergraduate programs. This ranking is accepted without question and is an integral part of the school selection process. As a result, Chinese parents are conditioned to trust and rely on a ranking system. Even if they intellectually understand the problems inherent with the US News ranking system, they still pay a great deal of attention to it.It is also important to know that the “Top Graduate Schools” listings from US News are important when Chinese families are choosing an undergraduate program. When Chinese students apply for undergraduate study in China, they must apply to a specific major. As a result, Chinese families are used to looking at rankings for majors, and also for schools.In other countries, this focus on rankings is equally strong, especially when the government stands behind the ranking. In recent years there have been several ‘global’ rankings, but those have not yet made it into the mainstream within China.
  4. Safety. Compared to China, which has a homogenous and tightly controlled society, most overseas countries are dangerous. While many Chinese students are drawn to great cities like New York or London, their parents are increasingly skittish. Movies and TV shows that feature extreme violence have added fuel to the fire. In addition, recent tragedies at schools like Virginia Tech have only heightened anxiety, leaving many Chinese parents wondering whether any place outside China is safe. Because violent crime in China is so rare, Chinese parents and students are not accustomed to it and therefore have a hard time separating fact from sensationalist news coverage.
  5. Student body demographics. Although they are loath to ever admit it, most Chinese students and parents are biased against schools with large populations of dark-skinned students. Interestingly, many are also biased against schools with a large Chinese or Korean population – parents want their children to learn “foreign” culture, which they interpret to mean “Caucasian” culture. Of course, many Chinese applicants end up at schools with large Asian populations, but unless the school is very famous, most Chinese parents I know complain about this situation. Separately, sexual diversity is still an uncomfortable topic in China, especially for parents.Chinese parents are also biased against schools with a strong religious affiliation unless, of course, the Chinese family is a member of that religion. Organized religions do not play a large role in Chinese society; many Chinese families are at best unsure and at worst suspicious about the extent to which an American school’s religious affiliation influences student life and academics. While an American or a Brit might understand the difference between a “Protestant” school founded in the 1800s and an “Evangelical Christian” school founded in 1980 (or at least know what questions to ask), to a Chinese person these are both religious schools, and therefore somewhat suspect.Finally, know that Chinese parents are biased against schools with a strong “Greek” culture. Perhaps due to movies such as Animal House, Chinese parents are concerned that an over-abundance of fraternities and sororities means that their child will be lured to drunken parties.
  6. Cost and financial aid. Interestingly, this decision factor is almost an after-thought for most applicants to undergraduate programs, but is paramount for most applicants to graduate programs. The vast majority of Chinese applicants to American undergraduate programs do not need financial aid. This is due to many factors, and is good news for overseas programs. For these applicants, the existence of financial aid is important, but often not a deciding factor. Neither is cost – if a Chinese family is wealthy enough to afford an overseas undergraduate education, they are not especially sensitive to the price difference between an affordable and a more-expensive program.The situation is dramatically different for most Chinese applicants to graduate programs. For them, financial aid is incredibly important. Unfortunately, it is hard for these students to track down clear information about the availability of financial aid. In addition, most of these students want a 1 to 2 year program, for which financial aid is limited.

It is interesting to note that the foregoing list of the most important decision criteria does NOT include the following factors:

  • Quality. While Chinese students and parents always say they care about quality, they have no idea how to measure it. Instead, most simply use the US News rankings (or another ranking list) as a proxy, without fully understanding the methodology. They also notice whether the school has any famous graduates, especially if they are famous Chinese graduates.
  • Education philosophy. ‘Western’ education is wonderfully diverse: some programs stress test-taking while others do not, some have strict liberal arts distribution requirements while others support full concentration on a major, and so on. In China, however, there is virtually no diversity in educational philosophy. Undergraduate courses within the student’s major are typically 100 percent proscribed – there are no electives over the four years. The same is true for graduate work. From a pedagogical perspective, China is also uniform: professors lecture, students take notes, and tests reward memorization. Chinese students and parents assume that overseas programs take the same approach, and therefore don’t think to compare education philosophies across programs.
  • School size. Many international educators agree that there is an enormous difference between a program with 2,000 students and one with 20,000 students. Many international students and parents, therefore, pay attention to the size of the student body. In contrast, most Chinese students and parents do not. This is because undergraduate programs in China are all approximately the same size: 30,000 – 40,000 students. Small programs therefore have a unique selling point (or disadvantage).
  • Geography and climate. Most Chinese families do not have strong preferences about the location of the overseas school, perhaps because most Chinese people know little about the overseas country’s geography. Even when they do, concerns about geography and climate are very far down on their criteria list.
  • Housing and food. It’s safe to say that most international applicants are hyper-aware of how a program’s housing and food options stack up. Chinese applicants are different. First, in China on-campus housing and food is mostly uniform across all universities, and is therefore not a useful comparison point. Perhaps more importantly, housing and food on overseas campuses is seen as much better than anything in China. Most Chinese applicants therefore don’t pay much attention to dormitory amenities and special cafeteria options.With that said, parents of Chinese students applying to overseas undergraduate programs are strongly in favor of on-campus housing options, especially for the first year. This is primarily due to safety concerns. Interestingly, Chinese students applying to graduate school are in favor of off-campus housing, as it is typically less expensive.
  • Sports and other extracurricular activities. Many programs are justifiably proud of their athletics programs and student clubs, especially in the United States. However, very few high schools or colleges in China have well-developed athletic and extra-curricular programs. As a result, parents and students have little experience in these areas. In addition, to most Chinese parents, these activities are a distraction from studying and getting good grades, which is why they are sending their child overseas in the first place.

I hope that the preceding discussion makes one thing clear: brand awareness, especially as measured by US News (or other ranking systems), is by far the most important decision-making criterion when Chinese students and parents choose among overseas programs. Almost without exception they describe their quest as “a top 20 school” or a “top 100 school.” Despite lengthy explanations to the contrary, they believe that a school ranked number 30 is fundamentally better than one ranked number 40, even if the schools themselves might say otherwise.

This fixation on US News rankings, and the general lack of understanding about how to effectively compare overseas programs, presents significant challenges (and opportunities) to admissions professionals. Even if your program ranks high on the US News list, you will still need to explain why it might be a better fit than a higher ranked school. If your program is not on the list, or is ranked outside the top 100, then you need to explain why it still might be a good choice.

Make sure your China marketing strategy, and all your supporting materials, clearly address these top six issues before plunging into any other detail. When you do move beyond these six areas, remain aware that what is important to local applicants (or those from other foreign countries) is unlikely to be as important to Chinese applicants.

Understanding these key differences, and exploiting them, is the key to successful recruiting in China.

Tom Melcher, Chairman of Zinch China

A graduate of Yale and the Harvard Business School, Tom lived in Beijing between 1985-87, and has lived in Beijing since 2004. He is the author of a best-selling book in Chinese about choosing an American undergraduate program, and is a recognized expert in China about studying in the United States. He is frequently interviewed by the Chinese press, is a popular speaker on Chinese college campuses, and has helped hundreds of students go to the US. Earlier in his career he worked for IBM and McKinsey, and several internet start-ups in Palo Alto and Beijing.

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Posted in Asia Pacific, Enrollment & Recruiting, Mobility Trends