Chinese Enrollment Trends in the United States
By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews
The Institute of International Education released its annual report on international enrollments in U.S. higher education for academic year 2009/10 in November, and the biggest takeaway was the continued and phenomenal growth from China at a time when enrollments from many other countries, including India, were either flat or in decline.
The impact of the global economic recession has largely been blamed for the general cooling off in enrollments. However, there are many other points of interest contained within the Open Doors report, such as the continued strong growth in enrollments from Saudi Arabia (24.9%) and the continued downward spiral in enrollments from Japan (-15.1%), but in this article we take a closer look at the numbers from China, which do not appear to have been impacted in the slightest by the global economic downturn.
In the accompanying article of this issue of World Education News & Reviews, Rahul Choudaha examines some of the finer details of current Indian enrollment trends in U.S. institutions of higher education.
By the Numbers
The first thing to point out with regards to the 2009/10 enrollment data is that if one controls for Chinese students, there was in fact an overall decline of more than 10,000 students at U.S. colleges and universities. It would seem fair to say, therefore, that at a time when most observers were expecting to see enrollments stalled by a hamstrung global economy, after record growth of 7.7 percent in 2008/09, China almost singlehandedly maintained the growth trend in the U.S. education-export sector.
The majority of Chinese students in the United States continue to study at the graduate level (52.1 percent), but recent growth is strongest among undergraduates whose numbers grew by 52 percent between academic years 2008/09 and 2009/10, from 26,275 to 39,921. In the three years from 2006/07 to 2009/10, undergraduate numbers have quadrupled. As a point of comparison, graduate numbers over the same three-year time period grew from 47,968 (70.8 percent of the total Chinese student body) to 66,453 (52.1 percent of the total), which while significant has been much more controlled.
Data from other sources mirror exactly what is being seen in the IIE numbers. Statistics from the State Department on F-1 student visa issuances show growth almost as strong as that seen at the undergraduate level. In 2005, 21,642 F1 visas were issued to Chinese students, and that grew almost fourfold to 81,842 in the last fiscal year (2009), with growth of almost 25,000 visa issuances from 2008. In the field of management studies, the most popular for international students, the number of Chinese GMAT takers has risen almost threefold between 2005/06 and 2009/10, from 10,142 to 30,264, with 66,205 scores being sent to U.S. institutions in 2009 versus 19,196 in 2005.
As can be seen from the datasets cited above, growth in student numbers from China was electric in the second half of the last decade, especially if compared to the first half of the decade (1999/00 – 2004/05) when total tertiary enrollments from China were essentially static, rising just 15 percent from 54,466 to 62,523. In the four years since 2006, the total enrollment number has more than doubled to 127,628, with snowballing growth of 5,141, 13,404, 17,108, and 29,393 in the respective academic years to 2009/10.
|Year||# of Students From China||% Change from Previous Year|
Source: IIE Open Doors (2010)
Why the Booming Chinese Enrollments?
One explanation for the surge in enrollments since 2006 relates to pent-up demand. In the years immediately following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, visa procedures for travel to the United States, and for student visas in particular, were tightened significantly. This combined with a general international perception that the United States had become less welcoming as a host destination for students caused international enrollments to level off and drop in the years between 2001/02 and 2005/06.
The bounce back since 2006 has been significant, suggesting that enrollment trends in the second half of the decade are in line with a fairly natural order of steady annual increases in international enrollments, a picture that has remained remarkably consistent since IIE starting tracking numbers at the end of the Second World War. However, given the phenomenal growth in Chinese student numbers since 2006, especially as compared to other major source countries, there are certainly factors outside of pent-up demand at play.
Supply and Demand
Perhaps the main reason why so many Chinese students are traveling to the United States and other countries around the world to attend college is a simple supply and demand calculation. Despite a huge expansion of the Chinese higher education system over the last decade, there is still a surplus of students in China each year that do not find places at the standard of university they desire. Couple this with the fact that the Chinese middle class, especially on the urban coast, is expanding and growing increasingly wealthy, and the basic dynamics of the demand for international-education opportunities begins to emerge: increasing wealth and not enough domestic supply to meet demand.
In 2010, approximately 9.5 million high school students took the national university entrance examination, or gaokao, in hopes of securing one of the 6.2 million university places available at China’s approximately 800 universities. In the United States, by contrast, with more than 2,600 degree-granting institutions, there is sufficient capacity to meet the demands of both domestic and foreign students, especially when one considers that foreign students account for just 3.5 percent of total enrollments.
As much discussion as there is about China’s booming economy and growing GDP, which recently surpassed that of Japan to become the second largest in the world behind the United States, one should not lose sight of the fact that China is still a developing country with high levels of poverty and relatively low average annual incomes (US$3,735 GDP per capita in 2009, according to the IMF).
However, the increasing academic mobility of Chinese students across the world, and to the United States in particular, clearly indicates that a rapidly growing segment of the Chinese population has the means to finance expensive overseas study. The growth in undergraduate enrollments in the United States is particularly indicative of the increasing levels of disposable income, as there are relatively few scholarships offered at the undergraduate level, meaning that nearly all funding is out of pocket.
Now consider that the vast majority of the current generation of Chinese students are from one-child families with two working parents (and a pair of grandparents), and the price tag of a U.S. higher education appears a little more reasonable than it might at first seem. This is especially the case given the cultural value placed on education in China, and the belief that an investment in a child’s education is one of the best that can be made. However, with the average combined annual costs of tuition fees and living expenses for international undergraduate students attending public universities hovering around the US$30,000 mark, one can only conclude that an increasing number of Chinese families are financially strong.
Given the competitiveness of admissions to China’s best universities, many students reportedly no longer bother with the rigorous, high-stakes national college-entrance examination and opt instead to prepare for the English-language examination and SAT that will grant them access to educational opportunities in the United States. Many more don’t do well enough on the gaokao to earn a spot at a top institution, and rather than consider second- or third-tier Chinese universities, now look abroad, especially to the United States.
In addition, rankings are important in China, and U.S. universities dominate international university rankings, especially so in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) published by Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, which rates 35 U.S. universities in the world’s top 50, and no Chinese university in the top 150.
Another factor to consider is the current employment picture for Chinese university graduates. While the economy is booming, it is not booming in such a manner to meet the employment demands of the rapidly growing cadre of college graduates. Even as manufacturing plants suffer from labor shortages, an estimated 25 percent of the 2010 university graduating class is still looking for work, according to Ministry of Education estimates.
China’s decade-long emphasis on expanding higher education has produced a threefold rise in college graduates since 1998. However, the economy is not producing enough white-collar jobs for these graduates, many of whom are graduating with the wrong skills in an economy that remains focused predominantly on cheap manufacturing, and has yet to truly move up the innovation ladder.
And it is not just industry that is failing graduates, but also universities. According to a white paper published in May by the American Chamber of Commerce, international companies that are hiring recent graduates are typically finding that they “have to invest significantly in training and development to bring their new hires up to par with their peers in other countries.”
The report adds that, “some aspects of China’s traditional education system contribute to the lack of appropriately skilled and qualified talent. China’s schools favor rote memorization over practical application. This method of learning does not translate well to daily operational communications, especially in highly matrixed or internationalized organizations.”
Recognizing the shortfalls of the Chinese education system and its teacher-centric emphasis on rote learning, many parents believe that a U.S. education will give their children a leg up in the job market. And not only is there the caché of a foreign degree, but also the practical workplace ‘soft skills’ that it imparts, such as creativity, collaboration skills and risk taking. The international experience and English-language fluency are also highly prized.
Will the Boom Times Continue?
Twenty percent of China’s 1.3 billion people are 14 or younger, which represents a potential pool of 260 million college students over the medium to long term. Given the size of the relevant age cohort, the 126,000 currently studying in the United States appear as no more than a drop in the bucket, especially if one assumes that the Chinese economy will continue to grow, and that levels of prosperity will rise not only on the coast, but also in the poorer provinces of the interior.
However, one must also assume that the Chinese government will continue to focus on expanding and improving its own domestic provision to meet future demand.
At the elite level, supplemental funding is already being pumped into a group of over 100 research-level institutions through the so-called 211 and 985 projects in a bid to raise research levels to world-class standards. Additionally, Chinese authorities announced in July a “National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development” that will boost spending on education at all levels and focus university curricula more on the practical and managerial skills that the labor market demands.
The 10-year plan seeks to raise gross enrollment rates at the higher education level to 40 percent by 2020. This is an ambitious target, but certainly not outside the realms of possibility when one considers that the enrollment rate rose from 7 percent of the relevant age group in 1999 to 23 percent in 2008, according to government data, and that the education budget is projected to rise from its current 2.7 percent of GDP to 4 percent within a decade.
For the 10 years to 2020, China has also outlined initiatives aimed at importing and producing top academic talent, in addition to training a new generation of political leaders, engineers, scientists, technology professionals, entrepreneurs, and educators. And Chinese officials are adamant that the nation’s economy will move up the value chain to become a knowledge-based, innovation economy rather than just a manufacturing hub.
Of course, even if China does meet its targets for the next decade, it is unclear how that would impact the movement of students abroad. Questions of quality seem likely to remain, as in any system that dramatically increases participation levels from a low base in a short period of time. The question of teaching manpower seems especially pertinent given that there is already a shortage of university lecturers after 10 years of huge enrollment growth.
And there is also a longer-term demographic factor. The one-child policy will eventually lead to a decline in the college-age population. If Japan is any indication, then smaller family sizes will ultimately lead to a reduction in the country’s college-age population both at home and abroad. Once the largest source of international students, Japan’s 24,842 students accounted for just 3.6 percent of the total U.S. international student body in 2009/10, down from 46,000 in 2002/03.
|Year||# of Students from Japan||% Change from the Previous Year|
Source: IIE Open Doors (2010)
Short-term indicators do, however, suggest continued strong growth from China and other nations.
Preliminary data gathered by IIE for its snapshot survey of this fall’s enrollments suggest that next year’s Open Doors report will reflect similar or larger increases among international students coming to the United States. Of the 700 institutions that responded to the survey, 52 percent said they enrolled more international students in fall 2010, 27 percent said they stayed about the same and 21 percent reported declines.
The 2010 Council of Graduate Schools’ (CGS) International Graduate Admissions Survey shows sustained, double-digit growth in enrollments of first-time Chinese students to U.S. graduate programs compared to last year. This year’s huge 20 percent increase in graduate enrollments builds on compounding increases of 16, 14 and 19 percent respectively.
“Chinese students account for a much larger share of all international graduate students in the U.S. than they did just five years ago,” notes the survey’s lead author, Nathan Bell, who adds that the growth figures “reflect the value Chinese students place on having a graduate degree from a U.S. institution.”
Certainly for the short term, prospects of continued growth in Chinese enrollments look assured, if for no other reason than the last two years of growth will almost certainly be reflected in the overall enrollment data of the next two years.
However, one must also consider that Chinese students already account for 18.5 percent of the total international body. This is a positive for cash-strapped universities seeking a steady source of full-fee-paying international students, but very few, if any, university officials would cite revenue generation as the primary reason for attracting foreign students. Much more commonly cited, or at least much higher up the list of motivations, is the need to internationalize university campuses in an era of rapid globalization. This being the case, the overabundance of one foreign nationality on campus will not bring about the kind of diversity and internationalization that officials seek.
There is also a concern that an overreliance on one source country could be particularly problematic if the student stream disappeared rapidly because of political, social or economic turmoil in that country or between that country and the United States. A current case in point might be the exodus of Indian students from Australian campuses because of the extreme levels of bad press Australia has been receiving in India because of a seemingly random, yet deadly, string of attacks on Indian students.
A historical case in point is Iran, which once sent as many students to the United States as a proportion of the total international student body as China does now. The overthrow of the shah, in 1979, essentially halted all student travel to the United States.
Whether or not there is currently an overreliance on Chinese enrollments, it remains clear that the United States is a highly attractive destination for international students with the means to study here. If past enrollment trends are a guide for the future, then it seems a fairly safe bet to assume that there will continue to be ebbs and flows in where exactly students arrive from, but that the overall trend will continue on its steady upward trajectory.