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Chinese Drop-Off in U.S. Graduate Schools Triggers False Alarm

by Elizabeth C. Economy
August 27, 2014

Bo Guagua, son of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai, receives his masters degree in public policy from Senior Lecturer John Donohue (R) at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. Bo graduated from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government on Thursday, capping a tumultuous academic year that also placed him in the center of his homeland's biggest leadership crisis in two decades. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: EDUCATION POLITICS) Bo Guagua, son of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai, receives his masters degree in public policy from Senior Lecturer John Donohue (R) at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 24, 2012.

The Chronicle of Higher Education blog first sounded the alarm on August 21: a just-released survey by the Council of Graduate Schools reported that graduate school admission offers to Chinese students had plateaued. As a result, the Chronicle made clear: “Chinese appetite for American higher education may have finally hit a saturation point. That could spell trouble for American universities who have come to rely on students from China, who account for one in three foreign graduate students….”

Well, yes, offers had plateaued and, in fact, more tellingly, applications for graduate study in the United States for fall 2014 from China were down 1 percent from 2013. This could matter for any one of a number of reasons, such as U.S. educational institutions will suffer financially from a lack of Chinese students, declining numbers of Chinese graduate students mean declining numbers of U.S. Ph.D.’s to staff Silicon Valley, and, perhaps, the United States is losing an important opportunity to shape the thinking of Chinese youth who will go back and spread the good word about the American way of life. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for concern on any of these fronts.

First, overall, international graduate applications to the United States for fall 2014 were up 10 percent over fall 2013.

Second, India, which is the country with the second-largest number of international graduate students in the United States witnessed a 33 percent jump in applications for fall 2014 from fall 2013, more than compensating for a 1 percent drop in Chinese applicants. In fact, China only surpassed India as the largest source of foreign graduate students in the United States in 2010.

Third, the United States remains the number one pick for Chinese students studying abroad. A survey of 21,352 Chinese, ages 15-36, reported in January 2014, found that for 26.8 percent of those who planned to study abroad, the United States was the top destination. Of the roughly half million Chinese students studying abroad in 2013, 235,597 studied in the United States, representing an increase from 194,029 Chinese students in 2012. Perhaps most importantly, many of the brightest young Chinese still seek opportunities to study abroad. Of the top scorers on the college entrance exam in China (gaokao) who finish their undergraduate studies in China, 60 percent go abroad for their M.A.’s or Ph.D’s.

Moreover, Chinese students are starting their trek to American educational institutions earlier and earlier. The number of high school students studying in the United States has soared over the past several years. During 2012-2013, 23,795 Chinese students were studying in private U.S. high schools; seven years earlier, there were only sixty-five private high school students from China in the United States.

As for shaping young Chinese minds, it is important to realize that to know us is not necessarily to love us. The educational histories of some of the United States’ strongest critics in China are replete with time spent in the United States: Fudan University’s Wu Xinbo has spent several post-graduate years in U.S. think tanks and universities, Qinghua University’s Yan Xuetong received his Ph.D. from the University of California – Berkeley, and Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming spent two years doing graduate studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

In fact, those who most appreciate the United States—or any other country outside China—stay there after their studies. Of the 2.64 million Chinese students who have studied abroad since 2003, only 1.09 million have returned to China. The percentage of those returning each year has increased since 2008, but Chinese officials have noted that while M.B.A.s might return, many of the foreign-trained engineering and science Ph.D.’s Beijing so desperately desires do not. To address the problem, in 2008, the Party launched the Thousand Talents program to entice the best and brightest of the Chinese scholars who had stayed abroad after receiving their advanced education to return to China, offering significant packages of financial and career benefits. Yet the program has had mixed success. While more than 3,000 Chinese scholars have returned, many of them have not relinquished their positions abroad, splitting their time, their reputation, and perhaps their loyalties.

As Chinese society transforms, the mix of young people staying at home or going abroad will also transform. For now, the fundamentals of Chinese society appear to support growing interest in young people studying abroad, particularly in the United States. The expanding Chinese middle and upper classes, for example, are strong supporters of sending their children outside China for their education. According to one report, 90 percent of people with assets of more than $16 million and 85 percent of those with at least $1 million plan to send their children abroad for study.

Yet political changes on the domestic front will also shape educational trends. Chinese officials will likely become more wary of sending their children abroad in the face of a new regulation that prohibits their promotion if they have no spouse and their children are abroad. In addition, the establishment of branch campuses of U.S. universities such as NYU and Duke may limit the need for some students to travel across the Pacific for a U.S. educational experience.

Still, perhaps the greatest benefit of studying and living in the United States is the simplest one, reflected in commentary by a Chinese netizen in Guangdong in response to an article on why Chinese students don’t want to return to China:

Young Li wants to emigrate to the United States,
The leader asks him: “Are you unsatisfied with your wages?”
Young Li says: “I am satisfied.”
“Are you unsatisfied with your housing?”
“Satisfied.”
“So are you unsatisfied with the internet environment?”
“Also satisfied.”
“Satisfied with health care, education, and all that?”
“All satisfied!”
“Since you are satisfied with all of these things, why do you still want to emigrate?”
“Because not being satisfied is allowed there!”

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