Here’s a thought: do American secondary schools and colleges serve as temporary pressure valves for an overburdened Chinese education system?  And if so, how should American schools keep their eyes on demand down the road, if the Chinese education system does undergo the reform it so desperately needs?  China is currently the largest exporter of students to the U.S. at the university level, and students are flooding the secondary level as well to get a head start.

In an article (somewhat misleadingly titled, I thought) How Will Dramatic Shifts in Chinese Demographics Impact Future Student Enrollment in the U.S.?, Intead (International Education Advantage) compares two graphs, one of rising numbers of Chinese nationals in American universities  (1995-2011), and one of projected population of 15-24 year olds in China (2010-2040). The suggestion is that with more and more Chinese students will vacate domestic classrooms in pursuit of American secondary and post-secondary academic institutions,

Looking ahead, China will experience a dramatic decline in the age group of 15-24 year olds over the next decades, declining by 20% to 40% over the next 10 to 30 years. This implies a significant drop in demand for seats at Chinese academic institutions and opens up higher quality education to a larger percentage of students at home.

But does the transplantation of students from Chinese to American classrooms necessarily mean that pressures on the Chinese education system will let up significantly? Looking at Intead’s brief comments, it was tempting to think that the growing availability of American schooling to Chinese students acts as a pressure valve for the internal pressures of the Chinese education system.  More students competing for admission abroad means fewer students competing for admission domestically. Given the highly stressful (and sometimes deadly) nature of the gaokao exam, the cap on university seats, and numbers of domestic schools offering quality education, perhaps the exodus to foreign universities gives more students at home a better chance at a college education and in the job market. That sounds like a good thing, right?

However, it’s doubtful that the migration of Chinese 15-24 year olds will leave behind much of a vacuum in the Chinese school populations, or that it would mean a significant drop in demand within China’s borders for a quality education.  Students who head abroad do free up university seats, but those who can afford to do so make up a relatively small percentage of the population, and there are hundreds of thousands more behind them who are demanding a college education. Competition for China’s university seats will remain fierce no matter how many Chinese students go abroad for their secondary and post-secondary degrees.

On the matter of how this will affect future enrollment in American schools, a few other factors are worth considering:

  • Shifts in perceived value of foreign education in job markets: From sea turtles to sea weed, returnees to China bearing foreign diplomas are having a harder time finding worthwhile jobs.  While a Western education is still hailed as the superior option, some in China are already voicing concerns over whether or not a foreign degree is ultimately worth the purported advantages, especially in China’s job market, where high-paying and highly rewarding jobs are few and far in between.  I am also reminded of this recent China Daily Op-Ed, Pigtails to Posh Toff, which the author wonders if the Chinese parents placing their toddlers in line for admission to top British schools are, in fact, on the right track.  At the end of the day, many of the students who go abroad to study are expected to return to China to find their livelihood, and I echo this author’s sentiment about job market prospects for Chinese graduates at large when he says “Our increasingly small world may not be able to offer that many leading roles for their Eton-trained, Imperial College-educated sons and daughters.”
  • Impact of Chinese student experiences on the reputation of American schools: How Americans schools recruit and accomodate Chinese nationals will affect the overall reputation of  all American schools, not just an individual school.  Chinese students and families, accustomed to navigating the application process with commission-based agents, are much more sensitive to a foreign education as a high-priced commodity.  International recruitment and admissions strategies with even a whiff of mercantilism may have an adverse effect on the overall brand value of “a Western education,” not to mention affecting the actual value of the education itself (as this USF school official who resigned his post over Chinese student recruitment, worries it does).  In addition, tales of being taken for a ride in a foreign land (like this student’s agent-assisted homestay experience with Canada’s Concordia University) riddle the landscape of Chinese experiences with schools who use agents to recruit students. These incidences affect a school’s brand even when the school is not directly responsible for a student’s experiences outside of the classroom.

A high price tag is, for the time being, still one of the disadvantages of an American education; though it won’t deter many families from sending their kids abroad for now, it forms a major component of the question, “Is it worth it?”  Many Chinese students still place high hopes for an American study abroad experience, and many must defend their choices to compatriots (for example, see this interview with the 18-year old Chinese high school student recently started a documentary projected called “Why Do We Go Abroad”).

This is where Intead’s conclusion is spot on: “For U.S. institutions to continue to draw increasing numbers of Chinese students, the “American” brand of education must continue to convey excellent value.”  Demand for American education (and British, and Canadian, and so on) is high now due to the vast gap between the quality and perceived value of Chinese and Western educations, but how can schools keep up?

In more concrete terms, what can institutions do to make sure that after enrollment, schooling and matriculation, their Chinese students will remain brand advocates for life?  What will make a Chinese student say without hesitation, down the road, “Every penny was worth it”?

One thing is certain: understanding the nature of the current Chinese demand for American schools is the first step in absorbing the demand.  If students and families begin to wonder if a foreign education is the right path, it will be up to schools to make their value obvious.


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