Continuing on last week’s theme of education, I’ve just seen the latest
new report from the U.S. non-profit International Institute for
Education, which tracks trends relating to foreign students studying in
the U.S., and American students studying abroad.
The 2009/10 figures are interesting for a variety of reasons.
First, a record high number of foreign students enrolled in degree
programs in the U.S., despite the global financial crisis. Although the
crisis slowed enrollment in the U.S. from many countries, it had no such
impact on China. Of a total of 690,923 foreign students in the U.S.,
those from China grew by 30% over the previous year, to 128,000. Many
other countries declined or grew by low single-digit percentages.
Second, for the first time, students from China numbered more than those
from any other country. China thus displaced India in the number one
spot. India remained at number two, with 105,000 students. South Korea
was in third place, and together these three accounted for 44% of all
foreign students in the U.S.
Foreign students in the U.S. constitute one of America’s top service
sector exports. International students contribute some US$20 billion to
the U.S. economy through their tuition and living expenses. The majority
of their tuition expenses are not paid by sources within the U.S.
While 128,000 new Chinese students enrolled in degree programs in the
U.S., there were 260,327 American students who went abroad for credit,
which can include a semester or school year abroad. The top five
destinations for American students were the U.K., Italy, Spain, France,
and — with 13,674 students — China.
Looking at other sources of data on overseas degree program studies by
students from the Chinese mainland, it’s clear that the overwhelming
majority choose to study in English speaking countries, with the top
destinations being the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S.
remains the top choice by a wide margin.
During the past 20 years, slightly more than 1.5 million Chinese went
abroad for study, mostly to pursue graduate degrees. Less than one-third
have returned, but in 2009 there was a significant (56%) jump in the
number of returnees. Various factors contributed to this, such as a
relatively hot economy, better job prospects, and new Chinese government
funding for research and development programs. It seems likely that for
the foreseeable future, the trend towards a higher percentage of
overseas Chinese students returning will continue.
In recent years the number of Chinese students pursuing undergraduate
versus graduate degrees overseas has also grown, and now numbers about
25% of the total. The latest trend is towards starting overseas studies
at the secondary level, partly to ensure better prospects in the hotly
competitive college admissions process.
Speaking of U.S. college admissions, an October 29, 2010 report on
www.CNNMoney.com entitled “Most Expensive Colleges”, listed the 10
priciest colleges in the U.S.. I would guess that probably half of the
top ten on the list might not be familiar names to Chinese parents,
because they are mainly not Ivy League schools or well-known, bigger
state universities. The range of annual costs — tuition, room and board —
for these ten most expensive schools was US$52,000 to $53,000 per year.(Note to Mom and Dad: Please do a good job on your financial planning, or hope to win big in VIP baccarat in Macau.)
One thing is for sure. If enrollment in overseas degree programs by
Chinese students continues its recent growth trends, and continues to be
concentrated in English speaking countries, then my forecast about a
huge balloon in the number of advanced English learners in China in 5 to
10 years’ time is not at all far-fetched. It’s already a work in
This has positive implications for the future of China’s “going
global” efforts, which will demand talented individuals with first-rate
language skills as well as cultural sensitivity and exposure. Such
talent is currently in short supply, but if current trends continue,
that is going to change.