It's a Wednesday morning in October, and as I stand at the airport gate I hear the dreaded news over the loudspeaker: "Your flight has been canceled." Only in my case, I don't understand the words, because I'm standing in a terminal in Beijing airport trying to get to Hangzhou. The news comes out in muffled Mandarin, which might as well be Martian to me. But a sympathetic British gentleman gives me the translation, and I trudge back to the ticket office to figure out Plan B.
I'm in China for the same reason that many other North American college officials have visited in recent years: to tap into the growing pool of millions of Chinese students looking for a college degree in the United States.
The number of foreign students in the U.S. continues to rise, and China, of course, represents a major source of the trend. In 2010-11, overall enrollment of Chinese students increased by 23 percent over the previous year. Not just large public universities or the prominent private universities, but private Christian colleges such as my own university, Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are seeking to get in the game. One of our peer institutions in the Midwest, Cedarville University, recently attracted attention when it opened up a recruiting office in Beijing.
Much of the motivation to attract international students stems from our mission. Just about every Christian college includes a commitment to globalization somewhere in its mission statement and strategic plan. As the locus of world Christianity continues to shift to the developing world, Christian colleges in the U.S. are recognizing that their future depends on ensuring that their own student body better reflects the diversity of the global church rather than the graduating class of a suburban Indianapolis high school. Some have been doing this for a while; others, like Cornerstone, are seeking to make up for lost time. Tucked firmly in the middle-class Dutch enclave of West Michigan, and with an international student population hovering around 2 percent, we clearly have room for improvement.
Of course, it's not simply about a commitment to globalization. As universities plod their way through the Great Recession and maintain enrollment by raising discount rates, foreign countries represent a potential source for attracting what my CFO loves: "full-pay" students, or at least fuller-pay than the average American student. So as both China's economy and its Christian churches expand, private colleges in the U.S. are increasingly eyeing the Far East as a recruiting region. This is one of those all-too-rare occasions where principle and pragmatism actually play on the same team.
So like many others, I find myself in Beijing. But like the guy at the fishing tournament buzzing off in his bass boat to a secret cove to land the winning catch, I'm heading 500 miles south to Hangzhou, a "medium-sized" city of over 6,000,000 that is home to several major universities and one of the largest evangelical churches in China. A contact of mine, a West Michigan native who teaches English at Hangzhou Normal University, has invited me for a visit and has lined up meetings with professors, pastors, students, and academic administrators. Unfortunately, the canceled flight scrambles my schedule and I don't arrive until midafternoon.
As a typical North American, I'm hoping to go straight to a conference room and get down to business. But this is China, where such things are eased into gently. So I find myself standing in the middle of the track and field stadium of Hangzhou Normal University observing "sports day" on campus. This is essentially a large intramural athletic event, accompanied by marching music seemingly from the days of Chairman Mao, which sparks passionate cheering from the 10,000 or so students. I get there just in time to see my six-foot-tall American host stick out like a sore thumb as the only white person running the 5,000 kilometer race. Unfortunately, his size makes it difficult to hide when he, along with several others, is lapped by the leaders.
This clearly isn't Beijing, and as I walk around the event and am introduced to college students, it seems that my hosts and I are the only Americans in the vicinity. Perhaps I've found an untapped cove after all. My optimism grows when I visit with Reverend Paul, a pastor at Chong Yi church, a thriving mega-church whose imposing cathedral is capped with a 20-foot-high gold cross that is visible from miles away (so much for my notion of the underground church in China). Reverend Paul graduated from a seminary in China, but he seems unfamiliar with the notion of Christian-based undergraduate education. Hence we discuss the possibility of my returning in the future to talk to parents and young people about higher education in U.S. Though Chinese students value higher education primarily for economic reasons, surely Chinese Christians would appreciate a university that develops the soul as well as the mind.
Despite the positive signs, however, it seems that recruiting in China may be more complicated than I thought. In the evening, I have dinner with some local businessmen and the dean of the School of Health Management at Hangzhou Normal. When I distribute literature about Cornerstone, the dean asks, "What's your ranking?" A bit taken aback, I ask which sort of ranking he's referring to. It becomes clear that he has the U.S. News & World Report rankings in mind, which are, for him, the basic source of information about the quality of a university in America. I embark on a rambling discourse about how there are a variety of different rankings out there, that a university's ranking depends largely on the category to which it is assigned, and that as a teaching-centered university we focus more on student engagement and assessments such as the National Survey of Student Engagement. Such remarks seem to make little impression on him.
In fact, the Chinese, I discover, place tremendous weight on college rankings. In Hangzhou, it’s a badge of honor that one of their universities, Zhejiang University, is one of the top-ranked universities in the country. When I'm introduced to professors, I learn not only from what university they received their degree, but how high that university is ranked. Even high schools, I discover, are prioritized by their ranking. As we drive around the city and the local high schools are pointed out to me, they are mentioned along with their ranking among the other universities in the city, as in, "That's number 2" or "That's number 13."
From a first impression, at least, it seems that education in China is beset by the sort of self-reinforcing, "one size fits all" ranking system that has been decried in books such as Academically Adrift and The Innovative University. When I inquire about the basis on which the city's high schools are ranked, my hosts reply, "by how many of their graduates get into the top-ranked universities." As to what criteria determine a top-ranked university, I was given two basic factors — the number of research papers that professors publish and the amount of research grants the faculty bring in.
When I describe different measures of academic quality based on effective teaching in the liberal arts, faculty-student mentoring, challenging students to evaluate and perhaps change their beliefs, and nurturing growth in character as well as intellect, they seem to be new concepts to them. But they’re notions that, I hope, may gain some traction in China in the future.
Later in the evening, as a dean and I walk among the chestnut trees along Hangzhou's West Lake, he shares his thoughts on the future of higher education in China. As much of China has been emerging from poverty and underdevelopment, he observes, university education has been perceived solely in utilitarian terms as a ticket to economic success. As more Chinese become affluent, however, they are finding that there is more to life than economic success -- and thus that perhaps college is not just about making money but about making one a different kind of person.
So perhaps there's a niche in China that universities such as mine can fill. If the Chinese are simply looking for a degree from the U.S. as a path to a good job, then it's difficult to see how we can compete with our larger neighbors down the road in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. But if it's about becoming a different kind of person, then we're playing on our home turf.
A Cornerstone professor who teaches creativity tells me that the first step in the innovative process is not problem-solving but problem-finding. My visit to China may not have given us the key to internationalizing our campus, but it may help us start by defining the problem: Before we can talk to the Chinese about the value of Cornerstone University, we may have to convince them of the value of a liberal arts education in the first place.
Rick Ostrander is provost of Cornerstone University.