Giving it the old college try
Updated: 2012-09-24 17:04
By COLIN SPEAKMAN (China Daily)
There is a viable alternative for Chinese parents looking to enroll their children in US universities
The past years have seen phenomenal growth in the numbers of Chinese studying in the United States. Traditionally, postgraduate study has been the primary reason for Chinese coming to US universities, reflecting Chinese government scholarships and a desire to learn cutting-edge ideas in carefully targeted areas such as science, engineering, technology and business management. Such well-educated postgraduates may well make an important contribution to China as “sea turtles”, the colloquial term given to students returning from overseas.
However, undergraduate study in the US is currently the fastest-growing area for Chinese students and will soon exceed post-graduate numbers. On top of that, many parents are choosing to start their child’s US experience at the school level. This is seen by parents as the best way to fully integrate their offspring into US society and to give them a head start in the process of getting into a “good” US university—especially if they are attending schools that have excellent records of students being admitted to top universities.
This growing area also reflects some dissatisfaction by parents with the traditional national curriculum in Chinese schools, with its well-known emphasis on rote learning, limited encouragement for “thinking outside the box” and in some cases narrow interpretations of historical events.
What cannot be denied is that the total process of attending middle or high school through university and possibly postgraduate study in the US while paying overseas-student fees is a high financial burden, and also represents many years of parent-child separation. It also reflects the ever-rising affluence in sections of China’s economy and the determination of other families to make sacrifices to give their child what they see as the best opportunity in life.
Of course parents do not necessarily need to send their loved ones abroad before university in order to prepare for entry into a US university. More and more schools in China are establishing international-program areas that supplement the national curriculum with extra hours of study intended to broaden learning and increase the chance of a successful application for study abroad.
The two main drivers encouraging Chinese parents to send their children to study in English-speaking nations are the desire for a different kind of higher education and the reality that the huge demand for places at highly ranked Chinese universities will result in some good students missing out. The gaokao, or the national college-entrance examination, typically sees nearly 9 million students chasing some 6 million places. In times past this has spawned a second sector of private Chinese universities to cater for those who missed out. Unfortunately private higher education in China lacks the resources of the big public universities and is seen as less prestigious, so Chinese parents are increasingly turning away from that option and considering study overseas at well-recognized universities.
This trend has seen the appearance of an army of education agents offering to help improve the chances Chinese schoolchildren applying for admission to foreign universities, with a particular focus on the US. Agents advise on SAT preparation, essay writing and interview techniques, and generally help students understand what the admissions officers are looking for. Parents are often willing to pay high fees for this service in expectation of good results. US universities themselves conduct study fairs in China, where admissions officers can be met, and participate in national recruitment fairs in major cities which attract tens of thousands of students.
However, as part of this process, many Chinese parents are focused on admission to well-known US universities, including universities with significant annual tuition rates of between $30,000 and $50,000. The cost of this practice, which is often encouraged by agents, certainly adds up over the course of a four-year degree. Demand is often directed to universities in major US cities that have good international-airport access.
The word “university” itself is often a key element, as parents in China see a “college” as somehow being of a lower status than a university, based on their domestic experience. Of course, in the US, colleges are among some of the most prestigious higher-learning institutions. Many liberal-arts colleges have a tradition of excellence, reflected in high fees, and are well resourced with quality facilities and personal attention to students. State universities might have lower tuition costs, but these operate with large class sizes and huge enrolments.
As more and more Chinese parents seek a US higher education for their children and questions of affordability increasingly enter the picture, the “2+2”process is sometimes overlooked and should be considered by more applicants. This option involves students undertaking the first two years of a degree in the academic transfer track at one of the many US community colleges before progressing to a highly recognized university to complete the remaining two years, and eventually graduating from that institution.
The community-college route not only offers significant savings in tuition rates, it offers a student-centered learning experience with much more exposure to interactions with qualified college professors who focus on teaching and learning at the undergraduate level and less on academic research. The reality at many large, prestigious universities is that their famous faculty are rightly involved in research and postgraduate teaching, while undergraduates often spend more time in large lecture rooms and in closer contact with graduate students who work as teaching assistants under the professor’s supervision.
In many ways, the community colleges offer a route to initial integration into the US way of life that is similar to the motives of Chinese parents enrolling their children in US schools. The community colleges also have strong links with local universities and verifiable records of successful transfers to these good universities. It will take a greater understanding of the US higher-education system and less focus by Chinese parents on the “ranking” of US institutions for more Chinese students to take advantage of this more affordable and often more suitable way to come to study in the US.
The author is an economist and director of China programs at CAPA International Education, a UK-US based organization that cooperates with Capital Normal University and Shanghai International Studies University.