The Risks of China’s Students
Image Credit: Flickr / Alpha

The Risks of China’s Students


This is the third in our special series of essays on the Asia-Pacific's future.

Over the past 150 years, several waves of Chinese students have arrived in the United States. But the current wave, which has brought some 128,000 Chinese students to U.S. colleges and universities, is creating problems and opportunities unlike anything that has happened previously.

In a world increasingly defined by U.S-China rivalry, this influx of Chinese students presents an alluring image: future business, cultural, and political leaders of both countries studying side-by-side and learning to understand each other. The reality is less romantic: This is a movement driven not by an agenda for global understanding, but – mainly – by free market economics. Large numbers of American colleges and universities are simply trying to cash in on the Chinese vogue for overseas study; in turn, many Chinese students – often self-financed and ill-prepared – are seeking American academic credentials primarily to advance their careers, with little interest in learning more about the West.

Critics in both the United States and China who know about education have voiced concerns that the education of the Chinese in the U.S. has become just a business – albeit a big business where money is the overriding motivation – not about education and academic excellence. The public in both countries is also disquieted: Ordinary Americans have begun to fear hordes of Chinese students grabbing college places from their children; ordinary Chinese express growing suspicion that the rich are simply buying American degrees.

The flood of Chinese students into American schools is a free market success story, efficiently bringing together producers and consumers in the global marketplace. But it’s also a story that shows how the free market, by ignoring long-term public and social interests, sometimes doesn’t work very well. It illustrates the limits of globalization, and demonstrates that when two cultures meet, they often collide, leading not to understanding, co-operation, and respect, but to confusion, conflict, and contempt. And it sets a challenge, for both the Chinese and American governments, to fix the flaws in what could be a positive educational movement before any more damage is done.

The China Boom

Chinese undergraduates in America had their coming-out party on November 5, 2010 when The New York Times published an article by Beijing-based freelance writer Dan Levin, “The China Education Boom on U.S. Campuses.” This described Chinese undergraduates rushing head-long to embrace the vibrancy and diversity of American life, and used the example of Ding Yinghan, a “bespectacled whiz kid,” to paint an idyllic picture of the Chinese presence on the American campus:

"Now a junior, [Ding Yinghan] is on full scholarship, no. 1 in his class [at Hamilton College] and spending this year at Dartmouth on a dual-degree engineering program. He also founded the bridge club at Hamilton, ran the Ping-Pong team, wrote for the student newspaper and tutored in chemistry, physics and economics for $8.50 an hour.

"His first tutoring job was freshman year, when his advanced calculus professor asked him to help classmates struggling with the material. Over textbooks and calculators, Mr. Ding used the opportunity to practice his English and find commonalities with people who had never met someone from China."

Ten days after this article appeared, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual Open Doors report, which showed that the number of Chinese enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education in 2009-10 increased 30 percent from 98,235 to 127,628. IIE’s President Allan E. Goodman summarizes the prevailing attitude among American educators when he said, “Active engagement between U.S. and international students in American classrooms provides students with valuable skills that will enable them to collaborate across cultures and borders to address shared global challenges in the years ahead.”

That’s not a view that’s widely shared in China, where many believe study abroad translates into the wealthy and powerful buying Western degrees for their lazy and spoilt children. Like many stereotypes, there’s some truth in it, but it’s by no means the full story. Among the Chinese students heading to the United States are some of the country’s top test-takers, who know that America’s best colleges and universities are the best in the world. Unfortunately for China, their departure is depriving its universities of what should be some of its finest students.

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February 25, 2013 at 22:45

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here is the truth
October 30, 2012 at 00:48

the kid stole money from the guy kept beating him.  A lot kids in China r used to steal money for some gangs. They wont be punished hard since they r way too young.  So ppl come to hatred.  but again those Chinese went too far.

Matthew Hall
March 19, 2012 at 04:15

China should learn all it can from Western society. If they aren’t willing too, they should stay home. I’m not a hypocrite on this issue. I have no interest in china and will never go.

March 17, 2012 at 08:06

Think you are right when you sa this is basically about money. Not the greater social good. As a result, Universities just want as many high fee paying students as possible and don’t mind if standards are lax. From my experience at University in Australia, I’d say nearly three quarters of Chinese international students lacked the English skills to study a degree in English. If you raised the standards, less enrolments and so less money.

Many of them also really only wanted to be overseas so they could stand out back home. Naturally they then group together. I saw the same thing with American students from Georgia Tech when I was studying at UIBE in. Beijing. They only hung out with other Americans, their Mandarin sucked and they used to complain about Beijing all the time.

My point is that this basically boils down to a few things. Firstly, it’s too easy to study abroad without sufficient English skills because Universities will seek to maximize profits. Secondly, humans tend to hang around in groups they feel comfortable with and imagine their own culture is best without experiencing something different.

The solution to me is higher standards in English, this ought mean a full year of English studies prior to a degree, not just passing an IELTS test. They also need better introductory programmes for international students. Potentially using mentor / buddy networks to give people somebody to talk to about life in a new surrounding.

February 10, 2014 at 04:52

Can’t agree more!~the best comment I read here.

March 7, 2014 at 15:09

I think your comments are fair!

March 14, 2012 at 17:36

“there are almost no African American students in this community college actually in the science and engineering majors”…because Rap, Hip Hop, and Basketball is way more important!

March 13, 2012 at 23:59

I really hate to say this, but having gone to college in Seattle, WA, studying in a STEM related field, I have been left with the feeling that China and the Chinese International Students I have attending classes with view Americans with contempt and disgust. The students tell each other answers during tests; Mandarin often confuses professors and when mixed with discrimination complaints, leads professors not to address cheating.

Chinese International Students use a team approach that leads them to self-segregate. These groups work strategically to pick instructors that are the easiest to cheat with or use memorization as the main form of instruction. These groups will not work outside of the Chinese community in class unless assigned to.

College administrators further aid in the segregation process with ‘international students programs,’ which divert resources towards programs for international students. The loser in this is the American Student, who finds herself unable to major in STEM fields prodominatenatly, because these majors are geared towards the success of International Students. This is true in style with, the route memorization system and grading with excessive multiple choice testimg. Also, instructors get use to teaching international students, and in science classes this leads to ‘death by PowerPoint,’ which causes American Students to switch to the Humanities.

If you don’t believe me, look at the statistics on the percentage of International Students and American Students graduating in STEM majors at Seattle Central Community College. Sadly, there are almost no African American students in this community college actually in the science and engineering majors. White students feel isolated by clicks and feel like they can’t fit in when everyone is speaking Mandarin.

To me the number one lesson being learned by Chinese International Students is, how to use your fellow Mandarin speakers to help you manipulate and win victories against stupid Americans and their institutions. Of course, after they learn this skill US Immigration Law leads them to return to China as opposed to contributing to America. I’m sure China’s competitiveness is gaining greatly due to both of these factors.

March 10, 2012 at 12:35

I was disappointed by this article. The issue is very relevant and timely, but the way it was approached and addressed provided a very anecdotal, at best, perspective. This article gives fodder to those who are simply looking for ways to cause unnecessary commotion, contributing minimal value to the public discourse.

March 9, 2012 at 20:25

There is a similar issue in the UK. In the university in which I have studied for the last 4 years we have many over-seas students from China and Hong Kong.

Many of whom, in fact the vast majority make no attempt at integration or cross cultural learning. They eat in Chinese eateries, shop in Chinese shops, live together, only socialise amongst themselves and even more bizarrely considering their choice to study in the UK cannot speak the language.

A lack of interest in integration and as in the US, many universities in the UK see these students as a business opportunity, means a growing number of ‘local’ students and those attempting to gain entry view them with a mild resentment which may have the potential to escalate.

M. Raab
March 9, 2012 at 18:22

Another article worth reading on this topic, ‘Top of the Class’ by Richard Levin:

John Chan
March 6, 2012 at 08:42

@Ryan Lee,
It seems Chinese are behaving like the western norm, higher the social ladder, more they cheat, lie, and less integrity. The Globe and Mail published a study, the title is “Cheat, lie, break the law? Chances are, you’re rich.” There are a lot of evidence on Wall St. and Capital Hill.

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