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'The Chinese Are Coming'

September 28, 2009

BALTIMORE -- Carleton College has 18 new students from China this year, and they are paying about half of their own expenses. A handful of them don't need any financial aid at all. While Chinese graduate students are no shock on university campuses, significant cohorts of undergraduate applications from China are a new phenomenon at most colleges. Just a few years ago, Carleton had only three or four students enrolling from China, and it never enrolled students who could afford to pay their own way.

In the past few years, the number of annual applications from China has grown to 300 from 50 or 60 most years. "It's remarkable how the tide has shifted," said Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions at Carleton. He described the growth -- and related issues -- at a session here Friday at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Carleton isn't alone in seeing this increase. At Duke University, the number of undergraduate applications from China hit 500 this year, up from 175 three years ago. The number of matriculants is up to 30, from 8.

Even as admissions officials welcome the interest, many are concerned about a range of issues -- practical and ethical -- that come with recruiting and evaluating these students. Deans here reported that they are routinely blocked from direct recruiting in high schools, or asked by high school principals to guarantee admission (and scholarships) to a specified number of students as a price of gaining access to students. (The admissions deans say they decline such offers.)

A thriving industry in China provides assistance to applicants on identifying American colleges and helping them apply -- but the help goes well beyond what admissions officers consider even remotely ethical. There are reports about forged transcripts and test scores. Several here said that when they e-mail applicants, the answers they get back aren't close to level of English fluency suggested by essays that have been submitted on the students' behalf.

At the same time, admissions officials stressed that there are many honest Chinese students and educators -- many of whom would be outstanding students at American colleges. But the process of identifying them, in a country where agents promise that they can guarantee admission (for a fee) and where such admission is considered even more valuable than it may be in much of the United States, is challenging.

"We are all dealing with an uneasy intersection of two cultures," said Christoph Guttentag, dean for undergraduate admissions at Duke.

Many in the audience said that they were excited about the opportunities but also more than a little scared -- especially if they didn't have much experience in the area. The session was called "The Chinese Are Coming," and while this is no Red Scare, there is quite a lot of anger at the companies that coach applicants. Joyce Slayton Mitchell, who introduced the session and who is author of Winning the Heart of the College Admissions Dean, called some of the companies "vultures."

Mitchell and others made clear that those agents are already involved in the admissions process, and that the Chinese system enables this, given that there are far too few places for qualified Chinese students to enroll in their own country, and direct recruiting is difficult.

"The only place left in the world that is difficult to have access to the public schools is in China," she said. "So you know very well that most [Chinese] students who apply to your colleges come through a business or a test-prep company or an agent or some kind of service that costs them quite a bit of money."

Timothy Brunold, director of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California, said that "not a week goes by that I don't get a call from a faculty colleague who mentions many of the grave concerns we've heard today," who wants to know "how do we know that these credentials are valid?"

USC has long had a large population of Chinese graduate students, but the undergraduate population is new. This year, there are 60 freshmen from China. Bunold said that in the previous five years, the total combined population of freshmen from China wouldn't have reached 60.

Given the concerns, Brunold said he recently conducted an analysis on those who have been admitted in recent years -- and the findings reassured him. Retention and graduation rates are around 85 percent, he said.

It's true, Brunold said, that reaching Chinese students will involve a need "to take some chances," and that "we should be very concerned" about agents claiming the ability to get students admitted. But Brunold said that the healthy retention rates at his campus reinforce the idea that there are many outstanding students and "it's time to embrace students from China" coming as undergrads.

The key, he said, is to "apply the same sorts of approaches" used on domestic applications -- careful, individual attention to each candidate.

Guttentag of Duke also said that there are great benefits for American colleges of adding qualified Chinese undergraduates. But he said that there are serious cultural issues to face. The Chinese "educational culture," he said, is based much more than is the case in the United States on "rote learning and memorization" with a "desire for the quickest path to success." These values encourage students to use agents to get in, and to engage in what would be seen as corner cutting at best to American admissions counselors.

While this culture offends many American educators, Guttentag said it was important to remember that "their system is stable, entrenched and, for them, successful" in terms of economic growth. American educators ignore the success of the Chinese system "at our peril," he said.

Strategies for Colleges

So what should admissions counselors do?

Guttentag said that they need to send more people to China and boost their ability to evaluate Chinese students. Admissions offices would benefit from a Mandarin speaker, he said, offering an example of why: He recently receiving an anonymous letter alleging wrongdoing by a company seeking potential applicants as clients and whose advertisement (partly in Chinese that he can't read) was attached.

Colleges also need to trade information and learn from one another he said. While there are cases where admissions deans are in competition, this need not be one of them, he said. "There are a lot of Chinese. There are more than enough to go around," he quipped. "It's not like when we're all competing for the top 10 kids from North Dakota."

Thiboutot, of Carleton, said he too worried about the practices of some Chinese schools and businesses. But he said that before "we malign a system of culture," American guidance counselors might also compare what they find so offensive across the Pacific to what they see at home. When he travels to China, he is frequently asked what test score would guarantee admission for an applicant. While the question is frustrating, he said that he gets the same question in affluent suburbs in the United States.

Many American educators object to the companies that act as agents for Chinese students, he said. But when some independent counselors in the United States charge tens of thousands of dollars to wealthy families for help in the college admissions process, he asked how different the systems are. "Is the [Chinese] experience foreign to us, or are we being imitated?" he asked.

If there is a difference, he said, it may be that the Chinese "are more upfront about announcing that they are using such and such a firm, and explain this is how it is done in their country."

Have American colleges admitted Chinese students who didn't send original material? The answer is probably Yes, Thiboutot said. "But that can be said of domestic and international students."

The Counseling Business in China

Much of the criticism of agents in China concerned businesses that are thriving in the country without formal ties to American colleges or organizations. Several international businesses, such as IDP Education and Hobsons, operate networks of agents or counselors. Asked if these companies' counselors raised the same concerns as the local agents, the panelists said Yes, and that their goal was direct communication with students, without intermediaries.

At least some in the audience weren't convinced. Privately, several said after the session that while they agree in theory with what they heard at the session, they do not have the resources of the institutions represented on the panel, or the ability to send counselors on repeated trips to build ties in China or other countries with large populations of potential students. One audience member said that if this market continues to grow, it could overwhelm American admissions offices. "Do we really want a billion Chinese applicants and a billion Indians having direct access to us?" he said.

The panel did not feature representatives of either IDP or Hobsons (although both companies had booths in the exhibit hall). NACAC has taken a hard line on the use of international counselors -- if they are paid even in part based on performance, as is common in this area, and which practice is accepted in other countries that recruit in China. The association's Statement of Principles of Good Practice states that colleges should "not offer or accept any reward or remuneration from a college, university, agency, or organization for placement or recruitment of students." Compensation must be through salary, the association says.

NACAC's position is consistent with U.S. law. But while federal rules bar commissions based on enrollment, the ban is only on students who are eligible for federal financial aid -- and so does not apply to foreign students. (NACAC's ethics code does not make a distinction, and insists that commissions are wrong, period.)

Mark Shay, IDP's regional director for North America, was not in the audience at the session Friday. He said later that falsifying records or writing essays for applicants may be common with some entities in China, but that these are activities that the company prohibits -- and would be cause for dismissal.

He also said that the commission structure used by IDP is significantly different from those used by local companies in China, and assures integrity. "Our counselors are paid well, and their compensation is predominantly salary, not incentive or bonus. IDP counselors receive less than 20 percent of their entire compensation from performance incentives as opposed to what we believe to be 75 percent at other firms," he said. "With a focus on finding the right fit for a student as opposed to doing whatever it takes to get a student into a desired school, IDP operates a different kind of business that the examples described in the session."

Jeremy Cooper, president of integrated marketing solutions for Hobsons, said he agrees that there are abuses in the Chinese companies that engage in the kinds of activities discussed at the meeting here. But he said that's precisely why entities like Hobsons can help.

"I suspect that the discussion was around what the use of agents currently is, rather than what can be done to professionalize the industry in the future," he said. "What Hobsons are looking to do is really change the whole agent industry and create an environment where the agent is no longer selling, but truly counseling." That's "no small task," he said, but it's a worthy one. There are both "professional agents and many unscrupulous ones" in the field, he said, and they shouldn't be all judged together.

Cooper said that the panelists were correct that "the ideal is a direct connection between a university and the student." But he added: "The reality, however, is that this cannot always, or often, be achieved. When the universities are not in country it is vital that their brands are being represented professionally."

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