The Chinese Are Coming: Inside Information from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (Part 2)

The Chinese are Coming! This emphatic title lured me and dozens of fellow NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counselors) conference attendees into a session exploring the expanding impact of Chinese nationals on college admissions in America. It turns out this title was only a setup for a punch line: The Chinese are Coming? The Chinese are here. And this is not news. The presence of China is now firmly established on the world stage. Anyone who happened to watch the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, anyone who has stepped foot into a Walmart in the last decade, anyone who has taken a peek at the US trade balance or our list of national creditors knows unequivocally that the Chinese are here.

And it’s no surprise that Chinese nationals are entering our universities in record numbers. Our institutions of higher learning have always been the crown jewels of the US educational system. For decades highly talented and ambitious Chinese nationals have made their way to our shores to attend our graduate schools, and now they are coming with increasing numbers to our undergraduate schools.

Perhaps we should be flattered that our institutions of higher learning are so esteemed. Perhaps we should be a bit nervous, as the title of this session insinuated. Perhaps we simply need to adapt to the new reality. Other sessions at NACAC advocated this course of action, boasting titles such as: How to Recruit Chinese Nationals.

What is driving the massive influx of Chinese national students to our schools? The forces are primarily economic in nature. The supply of available spaces within the Chinese system of higher education has yet to catch up with the increasing demand driven by the recent economic boom and the rise of the Chinese middle class. It comes down to numbers. Each year, some 10.2 million students sit for the National College Entrance Exam, colloquially known as the Gaokao, vying for the 4.5 million spots in Chinese Universities. It’s a giant game of musical chairs: when the music stops and the exam results are tallied, 5,700,000 students desirous of a college education will have nowhere to go within the confines of China. That’s where America comes in.

At a time when an undergraduate education in the US is growing prohibitively expensive for an increasing number of American families, it is finally coming within the reach of an increasing number of Chinese families. Middle class Chinese families, eager to give their children every conceivable advantage, are happy to send their children to American institutions of higher learning.

Many American universities are not only opening their doors, but they are aggressively courting Chinese national students. And they have every reason to do so. Chinese nationals, like other Asian nationals, are boasting fatter wallets and stronger test scores than many of their US counterparts. How can a university resist a full-pay student with astronomical SATs? When asked to indicate the number one feeder for incoming students to his institution, an admissions officer at one of the most prestigious American technical schools did not point to Bronx Science or Stuyvesant HS, traditional tech powerhouses, but rather to Singapore. So many students applying from Singapore have outstanding boards, grades and rigorous course loads, and many of them are full-pay applicants, having no need to trouble the Office of Student Financial Assistance.

During this NACAC session, several panelists cited statistics from their respective institutions reflecting the dramatic rise of applications and matriculations from China. Carlton college representative Paul Thiboutot cited that in the last 4 years, the number of applicants from China has increased from roughly 50 to over 300. And while 4 years ago zero students were full-pay, today, of their 18 Chinese students, 6 are full pay and all are paying at least 50% of their fees and tuition expenses. Duke University’s Christoph Guttentag stated that in 3 years, applications from Chinese nationals have increased from 175 to 500 and the number of matriculants has risen from 8 to 30. Timothy Brunold from the University of Southern California noted that annually, 3,000 USC students, primarily graduate-level students, are Chinese nationals. In recent years, Brunold revealed, the interest in undergraduate study among Chinese nationals has skyrocketed. For the incoming class of 2013, 600 students from Chinese public schools applied for admission to USC. Of these, 60 students matriculated, matching the total number of Chinese national students who had matriculated to USC during the previous six years combined!

The admissions officers from this panel acknowledged that their reception by Chinese administrators and educators has undergone a sea change in recent years. Whereas the US admissions officers initially faced cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles and a good deal of suspicion, they are now more warmly welcomed into Chinese schools and find that the hurdles are quickly disappearing. US college admissions officers are beginning to interact with a new kind of employee in the Chinese school system: international counselors charged with helping their students find opportunities outside of China. Schools are learning how to accommodate the once unfamiliar requests for GPAs, teacher recommendations and comprehensive high school transcripts.

In instances where there is inadequate support in the public schools, or when families feel the need for additional support, many students continue to turn to businesses, agents and intermediaries to facilitate the application process to American schools. Joyce Slayton Mitchell, reporter for The China Daily, reported that the intermediaries invite a massive culture of fraud and corruption; the admissions officers, though not as negative in their assessments of the intermediaries, all stated a strong preference for working directly with the students and their families.

Several of the admissions officers indicated that it is not just the quantity, but also the quality of students applying from China that is changing. The students’ degree of English proficiency continues to improve as schools put more curricular focus on English. Additionally, many Chinese public schools are teaching classes that place a greater emphasis on analytical thinking, creativity and teamwork.

Though schools are attempting to encourage teamwork and mitigate the effects of competition generated by the culture of the Gaokao, the society of education remains highly competitive. Many Chinese families view education as the primary means to ensure the future success of their children. The children, as representatives of the family, dedicate themselves to their studies in a fashion completely foreign to most Americans. Chinese students spend an average of 14 hours per day involved in academic pursuits. In comparison, American college students spend an average of 11 hours per week on homework. Clearly we are approaching education from disparate perspectives.

Just as the Chinese students invest thousands of hours in preparation for the Gaokao, they approach the SAT with a comparable level of rigor. Test-prep companies such as New Oriental have exploded on the Chinese education scene to take advantage of the new SAT frenzy, offering SAT classes, the scale of which would amaze most Americans. In some instances over 4,000 students, packed into enormous lecture halls, are instructed by a single master teacher, aided by speakers and massive projection screens. The students spend hundreds of hours, working through thousands of problems and dozens and dozens of tests. One of my friends and former employees, Sam Hwang, is currently working in Shanghai, teaching test-prep at a private school. A native of South Korea and a former student of the Hagwons (rigorous after-school leaning centers typical of South Korea ), Sam is very familiar with the level of discipline exhibited by the Chinese students. In return for their undeniable dedication and personal sacrifices, these students frequently achieve astronomical SAT scores and come to expect perfect math scores.

We are clearly dealing with significant cultural differences between American and Chinese students. Guttentag, of Duke University, said there currently exists an “uneasy intersection of two cultures.” When faced with differences, we often feel fear. But the panelists emphasized that in this case, fear is the wrong emotion to feel. It is true that things are shifting, or already have shifted, but we must adapt to the changes in order to thrive. The Chinese are coming, and they are here, and their presence will likely increase on US college campuses. The game is changing on many levels, but it’s still the best game in town. More than likely the Chinese will learn from us, as we will learn from them, and in the end the intersection between our two cultures may be a little easier for both of us.

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