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On Jan. 8, after almost three years of shutting itself off from the rest of the world as part of the country’s heavy-handed “zero-COVID” policy, China opened its borders and scrapped quarantine requirements for inbound travelers. For college admission recruiters in the U.S. and around the world, this means a long-awaited recruitment trip to China could become a reality soon, possibly as early as spring.
In a recent informal survey of high school counselors conducted by the international admission team at Amherst College, which I lead, more than 80 percent of the 82 Chinese international high schools represented said they planned on hosting admission visitors in the upcoming spring semester. Sixteen percent were unsure but were so because of ambiguous school or local government policies. While multiyear visitor visas issued by China before March 26, 2020, remain suspended, many high schools have expressed willingness to issue invitation letters to assist with admission visitors’ new visa applications.
As cheerful as this may be, when American admission recruiters return to the country that has historically sent the largest number of international students to their campuses, they will find themselves navigating a new set of expectations among Chinese families. They will face questions about the stability of their own nation as an ideal destination for Chinese students with its never-ending gun violence and rampant anti-Asian racism, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. They will face questions about the unpredictable direction of federal government rhetoric and policies toward Chinese students. Above all, admission recruiters will find themselves re-entering a market that has lost a great deal of confidence in the United States as a study destination.
Will Chinese Student Numbers Rebound?
The good news is that the U.S. is still among the top study destinations for Chinese students and their families. While recent data from the Institute of International Education’s annual “Open Doors” report show a grim picture in which Chinese student enrollment numbers have been slipping dramatically since the onset of the pandemic—a 15 percent drop in the 2020–21 academic year and a further 9 percent drop in the 2021–22 academic year—a rebound may be on the horizon soon.
In another informal survey that my team conducted recently among 692 Chinese parents who plan to send their children to study overseas, nearly 87 percent said the U.S. is the primary study destination for their children. This is encouraging news.
But here’s the catch: nearly 70 percent of parents surveyed also indicated that their children will apply to colleges in multiple countries all at once, not just the U.S. This phenomenon has been a new trend in recent years, primarily due to concerns among Chinese families about their children’s safety in the U.S. Alternative destinations include the usual suspects in the West, namely, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, as well as destinations in Asia, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.
The Importance of Face-to-Face Interactions
Throughout the pandemic, one of the key realizations among admission professionals has been that no matter how easy remote communications technology has made long-distance conversations, they will never be as effective as face-to-face interactions with prospective students and families. This is particularly urgent for China, as inbound and outbound travel was largely sealed off for the last three years, creating a void of firsthand information in a market that is often plagued with malpractice from unqualified study abroad agents and consultants.
Results from both surveys we conducted show that in-person visits at high schools and one-on-one meetings with students and families are among the most effective ways to engage with the market. Specifically, the 118 high school counselors who participated in our survey recommended as top strategies for engagement mock admission workshops, time spent chatting with counselors during high school visits and recommendation letter–writing workshops for counselors. Among the parent group, their top three recommendations to engage with them and their children included high school visits, one-on-one meetings with students and college fairs organized by high schools. More than half of the parents also listed public information sessions and the ability to communicate with current Chinese students on campus or alumni as being important to them.
The Increasing Reliance on Ranking
A direct result of the lack of face-to-face interactions throughout the pandemic is that Chinese families have resorted to the only tangible, albeit biased, systems of measurement that they have access to—college rankings.
Among international families, ranking is often seen as a simplified way of navigating a rather complex and unfamiliar system of higher education options abroad. To that extent, considering ranking as one factor when selecting colleges abroad is certainly reasonable. However, overreliance on ranking can be detrimental to students, as it leads them to set unattainable goals and fuels already fierce competition at highly ranked institutions. This seems to be a never-ending cycle in China: the lower the admission rate is, the more sought-after the institution becomes.
Recent developments in China show no sign of the focus on ranking abating. As just one example, the city of Shanghai announced last year that graduates of the world’s top-ranked colleges would be fast-tracked for eligibility for a Shanghai residency permit, or hukou, which offers direct benefits in purchasing an apartment and enrolling one’s children in prestigious local public schools. Given that more than 80 percent of all Chinese students return to China after their overseas education, according to China’s Ministry of Education, getting into a top-ranked college overseas now has one more added layer of significance back home.
It is not surprising that more than 63 percent of parents surveyed cited ranking as their primary channel for learning about U.S. colleges, more than 10 percentage points higher than the second most-cited channel, official college websites.
As admission recruiters return to China, counselors suggested they should spend more time de-emphasizing the importance of ranking and instead talk more extensively about what truly distinguishes their institutions from one another and from those in other countries, with a focus on such topics as academic programs, career advising, the holistic admission process, campus safety, educational philosophy and targeted services for international students.
Approach Recruitment in China With Care
One parent we surveyed said, “It is not that we don’t want to send our child to the United States. We are simply worried about all the uncertainties that may potentially harm them.”
This seems to resonate with many parents who feel similarly conflicted. To regain Chinese families’ confidence in the United States warrants special attention among all admission recruiters as they begin to engage with a familiar yet changed market. It has become more vital than ever for them to show that they truly care about the well-being of Chinese students instead of seeing them solely as a source of revenue. Not doing so may cause them to miss out on benefiting from a rebound in Chinese enrollments and risk steering Chinese students toward other competitor nations. The result would be detrimental to the U.S., as it faces a looming demographic cliff that will likely drive down demand for a college education domestically and hurt its leading role in global innovation and scientific research.