What Chinese Students Want

Experts offer insight into why Chinese students choose the universities that they do, what they can pay, and what their English levels are really like.

May 31, 2012

HOUSTON – The number of Chinese undergraduates on U.S. campuses has risen rapidly in recent years – increasing 43 percent in the past year alone – prompting many college administrators to ask how they can better position their institutions in the China market. At the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference here, experts offered insight into who the new Chinese applicants are and why they choose the colleges that they do.

As is well-known, one main cause of the increase in Chinese students pursuing undergraduate degrees abroad is the country’s increasing wealth. Furthermore, the government’s one-child policy has created a situation in which many families can invest their savings in a single child’s education. But just how substantial are these savings? How much can students pay?

Zinch China, a consulting company, posed that question in a phone survey of 18,000 Chinese students. The data show that the market is divided into two main segments: 25 percent of students can afford to pay less than $10,000 a year, and thus are truly in need of financial aid, while 53 percent can afford to spend $40,000 or more annually. (Breaking down that last figure slightly, 33 percent can afford to spend $40,000-$50,000, and 20 percent $50,000-plus).

Tom Melcher, Zinch China’s chairman, presented and interpreted the data during a session at NAFSA on Wednesday. He said that no matter what segment of the market colleges are aiming for – those who need aid or those who don’t -- they should not lead with cost but should focus on quality instead: “Positioning your program as cheaper is probably not going to work very well.” He added that this is even true for community colleges, which he said should emphasize their articulation agreements with name-brand four-year institutions, rather than their bargain price. In short, with Chinese students who can afford to come to the United States for college, it’s the quality that counts.

“That said, once they decide they like the quality of your program, making sure that you understand the financial profile of the student is very important,” Melcher said. “What we’ve seen is that some schools will reflexively offer very large financial aid packages to any Chinese student, and in fact some of them don’t need it.”

When conducting the phone survey, Zinch also used a rubric to assess the students’ oral English levels, and found that 18 percent had “superb” or “advanced” proficiency, meaning, in a practical sense, that they could participate in seminars. Forty-four percent were categorized as “functional” – meaning they could understand lectures but it would be difficult for them to speak with fluency – while the rest (38 percent) were classified as “sub-functional” or “poor.”

“Turns out that the most selective schools in the United States and elsewhere are chasing after 18 percent of the kids,” Melcher said. “Most of these kids really would benefit from an ESL program or a conditional admissions program.”

Melcher also presented data from Zinch regarding the factors influencing Chinese students’ college choices. In a separate, online survey of 817 high school juniors and seniors planning to attend U.S. colleges, students list availability of their desired major as the top decision-making factor. This may seem surprising, said Melcher, but he pointed out that whereas students in the U.S. apply to an institution, at Chinese universities, students apply directly to a major within an institution.

So what’s the takeaway? “Most U.S. schools do not put their majors front and center,” Melcher said. “Instead, they talk about when they were founded in 1823 and the beautiful lake and their Division I sports teams and all these fabulous things. If you want to figure out what majors they offer, it’s buried somewhere, but in China it actually needs to be front and center.”

The next four factors listed by students were safety, philosophical approach to education – many students are looking for alternatives to the professor-centric, lecture-based style that is traditional in Chinese higher education – cost, and rankings. On that last factor Melcher explained further: “It used to be ‘ranking’ meaning the top 10 or top 20 U.S. News & World Report schools. It’s changed now, as the number of students has become larger and they’re more sophisticated. Really, it’s more like, ‘Is this school ranked?’ At all? Because not all schools are. We’ve been finding that  even if the school is on the U.S. News Southern universities list [as opposed to the more prestigious national universities list], that’s perceived in China as, 'Wow, this school is ranked.’ ”

Megan Wang, associate director of admissions at the University of Southern California, added her perspective on the Zinch data. “When they apply it’s a numbers game,” driven by rankings and other statistics, she said.

“But when you try to yield these students, the conversation shifts. It becomes much more about quality of experience. They want to know: are the students happy, are they safe, what kind of classroom experience are they having? They want to know about alumni. The school’s history matters when you yield these students. It matters that you’ve been established for a longer period, because for them that sense of tradition and history signifies quality.”


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