Chinese Students’ International Study: Factors Feeding the Decision Process

For several years, China has clearly been on course to regain its position as the top source of international students for U.S. institutions of higher education, having previously held that position from 1988/89 to1993/94 and again from 1998/99 to 2000/01, and with Hong Kong as the top sending country in 1973/74. But China’s ascendance to the top spot in the 2009/10 academic year came sooner than many had expected, with the number of Chinese students in the United States increasing by 30 percent versus the previous year to nearly 128,000, according to the latest Open Doors [2] report sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and released in November 2010 by the Institute of International Education [3] (IIE).

While the majority of Chinese students in the United States are studying at the graduate level (52 percent), the number of Chinese undergraduates has seen a truly astonishingly rise over the past few years, increasing by 52 percent in 2009/10 to just fewer than 40,000, after increases of 60 percent and 65 percent in the two previous years. This growing interest is borne out in the strong number of visitors to IIE’s U.S. college and university fairs in Mainland China and Hong Kong, and continued rising student visa application numbers.

The rising numbers of Chinese students studying overseas can be attributed to many factors, the most notable of which is the growing middle class able to invest in the significant costs of an overseas education. This investment in an international higher education is increasingly seen as a valued path to a better future, offering heightened opportunities for professional and academic advancement.

While the Chinese government does not actively promote overseas study, in November 2010, China’s Ministry of Education instructed secondary schools to begin assisting students seeking overseas study options. Until then, many secondary schools were reluctant to assist top students from going anywhere other than Chinese universities, as it meant those high-achieving students could not push up a school’s all-important results in the gaokao, China’s national university admissions examination.

Other factors driving student interest in overseas study include the success and leadership roles won by many returning students (“sea turtles”) in the past decade, and the oft-cited adage of one child supported by six adults. Additionally, internet discussion forums in China that note the relatively high student visa issuance rate at the U.S. Embassy and consulates have been motivating those students who might have stayed home to study a few years ago to pursue the option of studying in the United States. With interest in international study growing rapidly, international institutions are now more actively recruiting these potential undergraduate and graduate candidates through university fairs, visits and other recruiting strategies.

Chinese graduate students continue to aim first and foremost for the United States, drawn by what is seen as world-class research facilities, combined with opportunities to work alongside leading researchers and department heads with access to significant research grants. Since 1995 – when I was a U.S. visa officer in China – I have seen significant changes in the mix of students applying to U.S. graduate programs. The solid focus 15 years ago was on the sciences, mathematics, and areas such as electrical engineering and computer science, and, to a lesser extent, economics. These preferences have given way to a more diverse mix of fields, and we are now seeing many students in Hong Kong and Mainland China seeking opportunities and options to study business, law, architecture and the humanities.

At recent IIE-sponsored U.S. higher education fairs in China and Hong Kong, we have been seeing clear trends among undergraduates that include a move away from the undergraduate “default” majors of accounting, business and engineering, with emerging interest in humanities, and rising awareness of community colleges as pathways.  What is notable is how quickly students from China are becoming comfortable with the humanities at the undergraduate and graduate levels. My sense is that Chinese students, and their very influential parents, are becoming more confident that they no longer need purely “vocational” study paths. In March 2009, in the northeastern city of Liaoning, I was astonished to be asked for advice on the “best place” in America to study French literature.

Today’s students can conclude that a degree from an international institution, combined with the creative and opportunistic thinking skills extended by international study, and transformational English abilities, will matter more to multinational and local companies than the specific field of their degree. Additionally, post-graduation Optional Practical Training [4] opportunities in the United States allow Chinese students to leverage their academic qualifications by adding practical U.S. workplace training, further bolstering confidence that overseas study will offer the desired return on investment.

China: 10 Years of  Exponential Enrollment Growth
Year UG % Change Grad % Change
2000/01 8,252 48,029
2001/02 8,659 4.9% 50,969 6.1%
2002/03 9,484 9.5% 52,235 2.5%
2003/04 8,034 -15.3% 50,796 -2.8%
2004/05 8,299 3.3% 49,293 -3%
2005/06 9,304 12.1% 47,617 -3.4%
2006/07 9,988 7.4% 47,968 0.7%
2007/08 16,450 64.7% 53,047 10.6%
2008/09 26,275 59.7% 57,452 8.3%
2009/10 39,921 51.9% 66,453 15.7%



Source: Open Doors (2009/10), IIE

Rankings not grassy lawns

How do Chinese students decide where to go to university – where do they start looking, how do they weigh countries and institutions to which to apply? What key factors do they weigh when selecting undergraduate opportunities abroad? What, if any decision matrix is typically followed, and where and how do rankings come into the mix?

Chinese students look at a university’s ranking and fields of study more than photos of students on tree-shaded lawns. Chinese student chat rooms hum with discussions of rankings and perceived prestige. English-language support matters along with the perceived ease of admission and the existing Chinese student population on campus. Institutions with materials in Chinese open channels to parents.

Competition and ranking begin early for Chinese students and often frame their outlook. According to research by IIE-Hong Kong [6], students and parents assessing higher education options begin with an understanding of the student’s own competitiveness relative to classmates and students across China. They consider the student’s chances of getting into a top Chinese university, then look at China vs. overseas study, university rankings, options for majors, and opportunities for financial aid and scholarships.

In general, three factors – a university’s competitiveness (akin to brand strength), field of study options and scholarship or financial aid – are equally weighted concurrently in the minds of students and parents. Students believe the most competitive institutions will best serve their long-term interests – jobs and earning potential. Rankings are seen to convey status and thus reputation and prestige. For many outstanding students, the goal is a top Chinese university which could lead them to prestigious careers in government or the private sector. To date, it has been highly unlikely to be employed in government without a degree from a top Chinese university.

As noted above, Chinese students and parents tend to be heavily swayed by rankings, which they think convey an institution’s and, therefore, a student’s competitiveness. Many think their own research is less reliable than that of an expert, and so they often turn to the services of study-abroad agencies. However, this creates a risk that choice of both country and prospective institution(s) may be strongly influenced by the advice given by a particular agency.

As an alternative, EducationUSA [7] advising centers offer impartial services, such as tools to research financial aid opportunities and one-on-one advising, in a bid to provide valuable opportunities for students and parents to learn directly about the wide variety of institutions available to them and which ones will best meet their needs, interests and circumstances. IIE university fairs build in talks to help students understand the value of U.S. higher education and the U.S. application process, and of course connect students and parents directly with admissions officers from an array of institutions and programs.

The gaokao: the elephant in the room

Key to the decision-making process is the understanding that students (and parents) have of their readiness and competitiveness to study at the tertiary level. The core determinant of entry to Chinese universities is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam. A student’s score essentially indicates whether and where he or she will be accepted, since a university’s cut-off score range, year to year, is roughly consistent. And because Chinese (and at present, Hong Kong) secondary systems are test- and score-oriented, students understand their competitive secondary school ranking, according to position and class size. So Chinese students, even before they take the gaokao, can sense their chances of acceptance at top-tier Chinese institutions, or at the second or third tiers.  This sense of place in the overall ranking of peer academic competitiveness often helps students to decide whether or not to apply abroad, or indeed whether or not to take the gaokao if they are decided on an overseas education.

Another factor is the growing knowledge of individual international institutions’ entrance standards. The growing use of chat forums on overseas study and financial aid options means students trade information that effectively build what students see as patterns of entry.  Some students welcome the U.S. application system for its inclusion of a holistic review beyond grades and test scores, while some students are deterred by the U.S. SAT and ACT tests in the context of their already overburdened schedules.

Two broad groups seek undergraduate study abroad

In effect, students do simultaneous equations, or triangulations on their admissions options. If they assess their chances of acceptance into a top Chinese institution as low, they frequently turn to international institutions because they think the cachet of an international degree will help them more than a degree from a second- or third-tier Chinese university.

For high-performing students seeking admissions to top-tier institutions abroad, U.S. undergraduate institutions are seen as the preferred option as they offer the optimal route to U.S. graduate schools, viewed as being of top quality. British universities appear to be perceived as adding social polish.  Most students have specific fields and goals in mind, and will independently research options and probably consider the United States first for undergraduate study. Typically these high-fliers are clear and confident about which field and majors they want. This group also may consider attending a joint institute or a joint degree program, such as the Joint Institute between Michigan University [8] and Shanghai Jiaotong University, [9] to graduate with a degree from both institutions.

Those who seek alternatives to keen competition in China tend to be more open when considering countries and fields of study. Well-off students tend to look at options in many destinations, including the United States, Hong Kong, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and to a lesser extent, Europe and Macau. They may lack understanding of the application process and are often bombarded with sometimes misleading information from local agents. They often respond to schools that are helpful and friendly to international students (special ESL programs for incoming students very much appeal.)

Another popular alternative is to enroll in a Chinese college affiliated with an overseas university for 2+2 or 1+2+1 programs. For example, a Chinese university may sign agreements with several universities in countries such Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Students spend the first two years in China and the second two years abroad (under a 2+2 arrangement), graduating with certifications from both universities. Chinese students know that some of these programs tend not to require very high gaokao scores and that entry can be relatively easier than applying directly to the overseas institution for a full degree.

Many students are very aware of different countries’ options and paths to post-study employment opportunities. Our experience and monitoring of student discussion tells us that the United States is the preferred country for post-study opportunities, followed by the United Kingdom, Australia and then Canada.

When it comes to gathering information on overseas study options, Chinese students visit university fairs and use online resources such as chat forums, blogs, institutional websites, the Chinese Ministry of Education website and word of mouth. Many students also attend agent promotions, although there has been a growing recognition that these can be limited in the options they present. More students are taking advantage of the services offered by EducationUSA, including its open information on funding for U.S. study, and they are also connecting with colleges and universities directly through alumni and information sessions.

As previously noted, Chinese students and parents are heavily influenced by institutional rankings, including the QS World University, the Shanghai Jiaotong University and U.S. News and World Report rankings, where they examine which country hosts the highest number of top institutions. In many cases, it is the parents who have the final say as to which country and which institution the student should apply.

Return on Investment

Prestige is very important for Chinese students, and beyond the pure brand recognition enjoyed by well-known global universities, rankings are a huge factor in the perceived prestige of a particular institution. However, as noted above, prestige is not the only factor, especially for less academically gifted students who might look at the level of English-language support available to them along with the perceived ease of admission.

Costs and location also matter. Although many Chinese students considering overseas undergraduate studies can afford it, parents prefer schools with less expensive tuition and/or costs of living, especially if they are not interested in the ‘prestige premium’ of a top-ranked university. Institutions along the west and east coasts of the United States tend to have a particular luster since they are better known to many Chinese families, and proximity to a Chinese community is a plus. Personal security is also a concern.

Job prospects concern Chinese parents: most parents hope their son or daughter finds a job or practical training – preferably paid, but perhaps unpaid – in the foreign country after graduation. Parents and students welcome internship placement support, campus job fairs and visa assistance, especially if transitioning to the post-student H1-B skilled visa category.

Hong Kong – Mainland China student flows

Hong Kong is becoming a strong competitor to the United States and other English-medium higher education systems in recruiting top Mainland students and talent. Government policies are designed to lure talented Mainlanders to work, invest and live in Hong Kong and create IT and innovation hubs. Hong Kong offers attractive packages to top-tier Mainland students and its well-funded research facilities are supplemented by on-campus “incubators” designed to hot-house innovation from professors and students working side by side. Hong Kong shares a culture with the Mainland, and its Cantonese-Chinese and English-language tracks offer students the chance to boost their English and learn a valuable Chinese dialect without the shock of immersion. Hong Kong universities seem to be climbing the Shanghai-Jiaotong and QS rankings, and students know high salaries draw top professors from around the world.

Mainland students seeking graduate study and research often set their sights on top American graduate schools or go on to Hong Kong’s graduate schools. By level of study, 50.3 percent of the research graduates and 7.6 percent of the undergraduates in Hong Kong universities funded by the University Grants Committee [10] were from Mainland China in 2009/10. Growing numbers of international students are on short-term exchange programs at universities in Hong Kong, buttressing its emergence as a higher education hub.

Conversely, some Hong Kong students – and their parents – are looking to universities in the Mainland to provide them with a competitive edge, Mandarin fluency, valuable networks and an early understanding of the Mainland’s operating environment. Chinese investment in key universities is already drawing students from Japan, Korea and Singapore in addition to Hong Kong – creating a new hub and fresh options for the world’s outwardly looking students.

A recent IIE survey of Hong Kong students showed most (76 percent) wanted to study abroad because of the quality or type of academic program.  The United States was the preferred destination, followed by the United Kingdom with very low interest shown in studying in other destinations listed.  Most students thought the United States had a high quality higher education system with a wide range of schools and programs through which to pursue a general studies program before committing to a major.  The top major of interest was business (27 percent), with fine or applied arts and the hard sciences tied roughly at 16 percent for second place. Students indicated they had the most say (41 percent) on educational decisions, followed by parents at 36 percent.

The United States was seen as the most expensive in terms of tuition, with the United Kingdom following closely, but considered as more expensive for living expenses. Respondents to the IIE survey showed an awareness of many scholarship opportunities in the United States, many through EducationUSA, but not for other countries.


So, knowing more about what factors affect Chinese students’ university application approaches, how can institutions connect with growing numbers of outward-looking Chinese students?

Institutions now have a real opportunity to listen to individual students and understand and build patterns of aspirations, then define and refine their institution’s unique selling points and “brand.”

Listening to students face to face allows you to see and understand their individual circumstances and aspirations and see patterns, which in turn helps you highlight your institution and campus. You can review your own institution’s multi-faceted reality, including multiple disciplines, smaller, supportive learning environments, cross-discipline majors, English support, internship offices, and/or a secure and safe environment, to pull out what will best connect with students and parents in China. Consider translating one core promotional piece to make sure parents can be part of the process.

So define and refine your message, knowing that repeat visits to China build trust and brand and viral marketing. Taking part in well-organized and well-marketed fairs is effective, and helps you understand the education system to evaluate applications. Taking part in U.S.-only fairs, rather than fairs with institutions from multiple countries, gets you above the “noise” and one step closer to students focused on U.S. study. You need to return to build trust and establish and build you institution’s unique “brand.” Then be ready to enrich the learning experience of all students at your institution.