Over the past decade, a wave of Chinese international undergraduates has swept across American higher education. From 2005 to 2015, the number of these largely self-funded students in the US jumped from 9,304 to 135,629, a more than tenfold increase. And despite the Trump administration’s chilly immigration policy and the overall decline in international enrolment during 2017-18, Chinese undergraduate enrolment still grew by another 4 per cent, according to data from the Institute of International Education.
This conspicuous presence of Chinese students in the US has given rise to major headlines in the media, usually with a strong focus on the students’ falsely assumed universal wealth. More recently, Chinese students have been politicised and labelled as spies by the Trump administration. As a result, the voices of these students have been silenced and their experiences obscured.
My research, at both Chinese high schools and American institutions of higher education, reveals a diverse set of Chinese students, with varying resources and different educational journeys. Their accounts illustrate that studying in the US is no longer reserved for academic or economic elites, and they reflect the increasing ambition and ability of China’s burgeoning middle and upper-middle classes to obtain for their children a credential from what they take to be the best higher education system in the world.
My research also reveals the very complicated and sometimes contradictory desires and behaviours of Chinese international undergraduates in the US. They complain that their previous education in China posed a threat to their creativity, yet they credit the Chinese system for their tenacity in learning and their solid training in mathematics and science. They appear to like hanging out among their Chinese peers, yet the presence of so many other Chinese students in their classes makes them question the point of studying in the US. Many are silent in the classroom but quietly fret about the potential damage this does to their grades. And while they often desire a liberal arts college education that is not test-oriented, they still work their hearts out to take the SAT and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) multiple times, as if scores on these exams were the only thing that mattered when applying to their dream schools.
All this highlights the fact that the US and China are very different societies with distinct education systems, cultural values and social norms. Because Chinese students are steeped in the test-based university admissions system that operates in their own country, they are placed in a cultural bind by the holistic admissions criteria that characterise US college admissions.
These criteria are also disconnected from the everyday realities of Chinese schooling. Few people in a typical student’s social network in China can write recommendation letters in English, and school counsellors are beyond the reach of many. However, to be competitive, Chinese students have to learn quickly how to equip themselves with interesting experiences and present themselves in a way that meets the expectations of American institutions. This entails a dramatic change of behaviour and a steep learning curve – and incentivises Chinese students to resort to the billion-dollar industry that has emerged in China to help them navigate US college admissions, with specialist agencies offering everything from test prep and essay-writing to extracurricular, internship and research opportunities.
As for which college to choose, rankings light the way. Their straightforwardly hierarchical nature mirrors the scoring system of the gao kao, China’s national college admissions exam, offering convenience and comfort to anxious Chinese students and their parents who are otherwise grappling in the dark with the unknowns and unpredictabilities of the US admissions system.
To improve this, US institutions need to invest more in direct recruiting in China, disseminating information about themselves that goes beyond the rankings and sharing knowledge about how to navigate the application process. This increased investment in direct recruitment – which could be achieved by networking and partnering with local Chinese schools – would help to yield better-prepared and better-qualified students. It would also help Chinese students and their families to identify the programmes and schools that fit with their abilities and interests – rather than leaving them to the mercies of the third-party agencies and the testing rat race.
Once the students have arrived, US institutions need to do more to integrate them. Contrary to widespread perceptions that Chinese students want to remain within their own groups, I found in them a strong and sometimes explicit yearning to make American friends. Yet they struggle to overcome barriers that include the individualistic orientation of American society, the excessive partying and drinking that marks the social scene on US campuses, and the lack of Western-based cultural knowledge and capital. All this leaves them feeling marginalised and excluded, contributing to a process of withdrawal into their Chinese peer groups for comfort and support.
Chinese students need their US institutions to provide diverse networking opportunities for them. For example, international student offices, which typically serve as little more than places to rubber-stamp visa paperwork, need to reimagine themselves as social homes for international students and as forums to bring them together with US students. I have found that participation in campus organisations gives a strong boost to friendship formation with Americans.
The disadvantages faced by first-generation Chinese students, whose parents have never been to college, are particularly severe. They are more likely to have poor English and less likely to have close American friends. Their marginalisation is sometimes masked by their economic resources, but it is no less real for it. Institutions need to be acutely aware of their predicament and provide targeted support to help them integrate.
Until institutions make systematic and sustained efforts, the cultural and social benefits to American higher education brought by Chinese students will not be realised – and Chinese students will leave American institutions feeling disappointed.
*Note: This article was initially published in Times Higher Education here.
Yingyi Ma is associate professor of sociology and director of Asian/Asian American studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. Her book Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education will be published in February by Columbia University Press.