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A Shifting International Mix

August 25, 2010

In fall 2004, Kansas State University had just one Chinese undergraduate on campus. In fall 2009, there were 534.

The statistic would be staggering in any context, and yet the surge is merely an extreme manifestation of a national trend. Chinese undergraduate enrollment has soared at U.S. universities in recent years and, as another academic year begins, the trend line shows no sign of reversing. Nationally, Chinese undergraduate enrollment shot up 64.7 percent from 2006-7 to 2007-8, and another 59.8 percent from 2007-8 to 2008-9. According to the most recent Open Doors data, collected by the Institute of International Education, 26,275 Chinese undergraduates were enrolled at U.S. universities in 2008-9.

Undergraduate Chinese Enrollment at U.S. Universities

  Number Enrolled Percentage Gain
2004-5 8,299 3.3%
2005-6 9,304 12.1%
2006-7 9,988 7.4%
2007-8 16,450 64.7%
2008-9 26,275 59.7%

“The factors that produced the sharp rise over the past two years are likely to continue to have that impact,” says Peggy Blumenthal, IIE’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “There’s the increasingly economically strong middle class in China, who are determined to get the best education they can for the one child in their family, so they’re pouring all their resources into that one child, and they’re shopping all over the world for where they can get the best education. China has a number of strong universities, but not compared to the number of students who are interested in receiving a world-class education. So there will be more demand than supply.” Which, in turn, means an increase in the supply of Chinese students coming to the United States.

The phenomenon represents a profound shift for many U.S. universities. Traditionally, the "typical" international student in the United States has been a graduate student from India, China or South Korea. This remains the case – foreign graduate students outnumber foreign undergraduates. But international undergraduate enrollment -- fueled by the rapid rise in students from China -- is growing much more quickly, and the face of the "typical" international student is changing on many campuses.

"If you look at our international student numbers, we’re coming close to the day when we’re going to be closing in on 50 percent undergrad, 50 percent graduate/professional," says William Brustein, vice provost for global strategies and international affairs at Ohio State University.

Such a shift has significant financial implications. As Brustein points out, these are full fee-paying students (paying out-of-state tuition in the case of public universities), whereas graduate students are largely subsidized. Foreign undergraduates bring new academic opportunities too, in terms of internationalization of the classroom culture and student life. “With undergraduate international students, you have them more engaged on a daily basis with students in the classroom who may never have traveled outside of, let’s say, Franklin County [where Columbus is],” Brustein says. Whereas “the international graduate student from East Asia was typically in very small classes, working one-on-one with the professor. You didn’t get that kind of interaction with the non-international student body.”

Ohio State is expecting its numbers of Chinese undergraduates to continue surging this fall. Consider these figures comparing the current application cycle to last: Ohio State received 1,738 freshman applications from China for fall, up from 1,225; of these, 1,036 students were admitted, an increase from 547. Of these, 386 have paid their deposits, compared to 202 at the same point last year. And this is over and above increased numbers of new undergraduate transfer students from China.

"When you add it up," says Brustein, "last year we had 581 total enrolled undergraduates from China in the autumn quarter. Our projection is for at least 750 this year."

Growing Pains

The growth has come with challenges. A panel of admissions deans at last year’s National Association for College Admission Counseling conference raised concerns about the large role that agents – some of them unscrupulous – play as middlemen in the undergraduate application process in China. There were tales of agents forging transcripts and test scores, and of suspect application essays. Such tales have prompted U.S. colleges – which increasingly have embraced the use of agents, paid on commission, in international recruiting – to seek to regulate the market, and a relatively new organization, the American International Recruitment Council, has begun certifying overseas agencies that meet its standards. (NACAC itself, however, has been among the associations that have opposed the expansion of commission-based recruitment abroad, in China and elsewhere.)

Concerns about the potential for abuse persist. Much of the debate on the topic of agents is based on anecdotes, but researchers from Iowa State University recently conducted a survey to quantify the reasons why Chinese students use agents and their experiences. The researchers surveyed and interviewed students at five high schools in China (in Zhengzhou), and Chinese students at four U.S. colleges: Grinnell College, Iowa State and Fort Hays State Universities, and the University of Southern California. Of the Chinese high school students interested in applying to a foreign university, more than two-thirds said they planned to use or were using agents. About half of the students at U.S. colleges said they had used agents.

The agents tended to be most helpful to students when it came to getting a visa and preparing for English language tests, says the lead author, Linda Serra Hagedorn, interim department chair and professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State. "Some of these agencies are on the up-and-up; most of these agencies are on the up-and-up," she says. "Of course there’s a dark side and some agents are less scrupulous and made promises that they can’t keep. In talking to a few students, we talked about practices that were going on in agencies that were a little bit appalling, such as that the agent would write up the application for the student – you pay him or her, he writes up the application, writes the essay." It’s difficult to say, however, just how pervasive such practices are.

On the Chinese side of the transaction, many students said they didn’t want to use agents but that their mothers insisted on it – "They want so badly for their child to be successful." And, on the American side, "the students that were here who used them overall felt that, in the end, it was an experience that worked out for them. They were pleased that they were here, but they did point out the cost is very, very high," Hagedorn says, pointing out that some agents accept money from both ends – directly from students and via commissions from universities. "Some students when they got here were surprised that not everyone did use agents, that you really could get here without it."

The challenges of growth aren’t limited to those regarding recruitment and admission. Iowa State has seen its Chinese undergraduate population rise from 55 in fall 2006 to 876 in fall 2009. James Dorsett, director of the International Students and Scholars Office, expects that about 360 new Chinese freshmen will start classes at Iowa State this fall. "It’s a good thing. We’re obviously happy to have them," Dorsett says. “People are more aware of our internationals since our numbers have continued to go up. People will remark that they meet many more of the internationals than they used to around class and around town.”

But as the population exploded, it also became apparent that a disproportionate number of the Chinese undergraduates were struggling in the classroom, and acting up outside it – there were run-of-the-mill roommate disputes and reports of Chinese students driving cars without licenses or insurance, for example. In other words, there were problems that come when a college suddenly has a big new group of 18-year-olds on campus.

"They are young, they can be somewhat immature," says Dorsett. "Just as we can have immature Americans coming to school. Put them in a new environment, where they’re away from their families, and it’s very easy to not be terribly focused on your academics. So we would have some [Chinese] students who, maybe coupled with language difficulties, were not spending as much time on academic preparation as they should, and then when they got in trouble, not really tapping into the support networks to do something about it."

Iowa State has taken some concrete steps to address these problems, including making its orientation more robust – bringing in more Chinese-speakers to lead small group sessions, for instance -- and increasing its minimum English language test score requirements, with the goal of attracting a better-prepared class academically. The university raised the minimum score from 68 on the Internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language or 5.5 on the International English Language Testing System, to 71 and 6.0 (the latter with no sub-score below a 5.5), respectively.

Meanwhile, some of the problems that have come with the growth spurt seem to be self-correcting over time, Dorsett says. Students rely on their peers for support, and now they have peers who are better equipped to provide it. "As we have more of these undergrad students who have been through the system and learn how things go, I think they’re helping to temper some of these problems for the new students that come behind."

Explaining the Increase

Demographic factors, when combined with insufficient capacity of China’s still-developing higher education system, largely explain why the total pie of Chinese undergraduates studying in the United States has gotten so much bigger. But some American universities have been more proactive in tapping into this new stream of students than others.

Of course, a growing number of institutions are contracting with agents to increase their international enrollment more generally. Many U.S. universities have created joint or dual degree programs with Chinese universities – such as the 1+2+1 programs, in which students start and finish their degrees in China and spend their middle two years in the United States. Kansas State and Ohio State Universities are among the institutions that have opened offices in China.

Increasingly, universities have used conditional admissions as a tool for increasing Chinese (and other international) enrollment. In these arrangements, students who meet the academic requirements for admission save for their English abilities are conditionally admitted pending successful completion of an intensive English language program.

At the University of Delaware, Chinese students make up the vast majority of undergraduates offered conditional admission. The number of Chinese undergraduates who have successfully completed the English Language Institute’s program in order to matriculate into the university has increased from five in fall 2008 to 162 for the upcoming fall.

Scott G. Stevens, the director of the English Language Institute, says that the conditional admissions policy has been “critical” in increasing Chinese undergraduate enrollment at Delaware. "You can do a study of universities across the country; those that don’t have conditional admissions almost 1 to 1 don’t have many Chinese students. There are exceptions. Some of the Ivies [for example], they’re going to attract students regardless."

The University of Washington is an example of a place that is benefiting from increased application numbers from China, without much effort on its part. Freshman applications have jumped from 633 in fall 2008 to 2,339 in fall 2010, admissions offers from 319 to 797, and confirmed enrollment from 139 to 307 (projected for fall). “All this has been happening and we’ve been doing no recruiting in China,” says Philip Ballinger, the assistant vice president for enrollment and director of admissions. Participation in a College Board-organized event in Shanghai two years back has been the extent of the institution’s recruiting activity. “As near as we can make out,” says Ballinger, “it’s word of mouth…. It’s things like the experiences of the students here being communicated back, the geographic accessibility, the cultural accessibility” -- Seattle having a large Asian population.

The University of Washington does well in academic rankings, and that no doubt has something to do with it, Ballinger says. Then again, at a freshman picnic a couple years ago, Ballinger asked a Chinese student why she’d come to the University of Washington. The student mentioned Grey’s Anatomy, a medical drama set in Seattle.

“When everything’s said and done,” Ballinger says, “maybe Grey’s Anatomy does have an effect.”

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