The annual 2013 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange
was recently released. Once again, China ranks as both the fastest
growing and the largest source of enrollment in America’s 3,500-plus
accredited colleges and universities.
Students from mainland China (counted separately from Hong Kong and
Taiwan) numbered 235,000 out of a total international enrollment figure
of nearly 900,000 at the tertiary level in the U.S.
The fastest growing segment of Chinese enrollment in recent years has
been at the undergraduate level. This past year was no different, with
26% year on year growth.
Of concern to many US universities, however, was the slowdown in growth
of enrollment from China at the graduate level, especially in science
and engineering disciplines. For the previous 7 years, year on year
growth was in the strong double digits. In 2013, it slipped to only 5%.
By contrast, first-time graduate enrollment from India surged 40%.
As the Open Doors Report points out, international students represent a
major revenue opportunity for the American education system,
contributing some US$24 billion to the US economy in 2013. International
student enrollment is up 40% from ten years ago, and yet it represents
only 4% of total graduate and undergraduate enrollment in the U.S.
American students also studied abroad in record numbers in 2013,
totaling 283,000. Most of these were enrolled in summer, semester, or
one-year programs, as opposed to the degree programs which Chinese
college students typically pursue overseas. The U.K., Italy, Spain and
France remain the top destinations for American students, although China
has also grown in popularity, and is now ranked 5th.
Even so, less than 10% of US college students study abroad at any point
during their undergraduate years. It appears China is doing more to
transform their best and brightest into globally-minded citizens than
the US is, at least insofar as study abroad is concerned.
Another clear trend in US-China education is the growing numbers of
mainland students in private US secondary schools. According to the US
Department of Homeland Security, the number of mainland Chinese enrolled
in private US high schools is currently 23,795, up from just 4,503 in
2008. Their main objective is to be better prepared for the U.S. college
The growing appeal of admission to US, Australian, U.K. and other
universities has also been a driver of the establishment of more
international secondary schools in China. More of the better Chinese
high schools now provide college counseling services, providing
alternatives to in-country school recruitment agents and consultants,
some of whom are aggressive and unethical.
One of the by-products of the heightened competitive admissions
environment for top US universities is that many college preparatory
high schools in China now have volunteer programs where students engage
in community outreach or charity work. Apart from demonstrating social
responsibility, this becomes a valuable add-on to the college
Chinese parents face a challenging decision on which kind
of U.S. secondary school to choose. Among the 1,085 member schools of
the National Association of Independent Schools, the median percentage
of international student enrollment is only 3.2%
The good news is that in such an environment, Chinese students have no
choice but to integrate, improving their English and cross-cultural
skills in the process.
However, being part of a very small minority of international students
among a student body who tend to be academically bright but culturally
provincial, on a campus often located in a rural rather than urban
community, can be an extremely lonely experience. Even though the
Chinese student may be well prepared academically, he or she will face a
highly competitive and challenging social integration process. The
emotional challenges involved are significant.
On the other hand are some member schools of The
Association of Boarding Schools, where enrollment from China can range
higher than 25% of the student body. This gives the Chinese student
ample room to hang out just with other Chinese kids.
The recent years’ surge in enrollment from mainland China into American
(as well as U.K., Canadian, Australian and other countries’) schools is
good news for China and the world, but it is not without controversy.
Widespread fraud in the application process has created a serious
reputational problem for applicants from China among U.S. admissions
offices. Applicants from China are now routinely treated with an extra
level of scrutiny and doubt. Partly because of the soaring numbers, this
applies more to Chinese applicants than to those from other countries,
according to US education experts I’ve spoken with.
Zinch China, the US-headquartered international online social network
for students, published their Zinch White Paper #4 in November 2012.
They interviewed 250 Chinese high school seniors from better high
schools in China. The paper aimed to describe the extent of application
fraud in China, and revealed a sobering landscape:
• 90% of recommendation letters were fake
• 70% of application essays were not written by the candidate
• 50% of high school transcripts were falsified to some degree
The high scholars’ common observation was that “everybody cheats” due largely to relentless, intense parental pressure on getting their kids into famous universities.
Zinch also found that at that time, about 80% of the Chinese applicants to US undergraduate programs whom they interviewed
used China-based agents, few of whom follow accepted ethical standards.
Apart from a fee ranging from US$6,000 to $10,000, many agents get a
bonus for acceptance to top-ranked schools, and (secretly) a percentage
of the financial aid package, if one is awarded.
To cope with the fraud issue, and assist US admissions offices to
evaluate Chinese applicants’ bona fides, one enterprising group of
Americans, Canadians, Israelis and Chinese formed a company providing
specialized verification services.
Three-year old Vericant, with offices in China as well as the U.S.,
provides schools with a video recording of the applicant answering a
series of carefully formulated questions in English, as well as a
proctor-supervised essay writing session.
According to co-founder Chris Boehner, business is growing steadily. He
says there are a growing number of competitive service providers as well
as non-profits offering assistance to US admissions offices in China, but Vericant has a head start in their core market, which are private secondary schools.
Boehner says there are about 400 legally registered overseas study
consultants in China who offer a wide range of services designed to help
Chinese students get into US and other overseas schools. He estimates
there are hundreds more unlicensed ones.
Vericant’s website features a statement on the issue of admissions
fraud, which emphasizes that the disconnects between the Chinese and US
education system also make the application process more complicated for
Chinese students. In other words, disconnects in the two systems invite
fraud to a certain extent.
A few examples of such disconnects: some Chinese high schools are
opposed to their best students pursuing studies overseas, and obstruct
the issuance of transcripts or teacher recommendation letters; Chinese
teachers are generally not accustomed to writing American-style
recommendation letters, and many are not capable of doing so in English.
The British Council’s 2012 Report “Internationalizing Higher Education”
forecasts that by 2020, there will be 2.86 million students seeking
overseas studies globally. Within the same time frame, they estimate an
additional 100,000 students coming into the study abroad market from
China, India, Indonesia and Brazil alone.
This estimate sounds low to me, based on recent years’ trends from China alone.
In addition, consider the impact of the recently announced relaxation of
China’s one-child policy. Population experts predict this could result
in an additional 2 to 3 million births within the first few years alone,
especially among wealthier Chinese families — those most likely to be
considering overseas study for their children. The impact on the
outbound flow of Chinese students over the next 15-20 years could be
very significant indeed.
The study abroad market for mainland Chinese students is poised to continue growing by leaps and bounds.
Growing pains, including application fraud, make it a matter of urgency
for educational institutions, professional associations, and regulators
in the US as well as China to become more engaged in finding effective
ways to improve the process.
Chinese parents also need to carefully consider the
long-term implications of what examples they are setting for their
children by compromising ethical values in pursuit of achieving “face” in the college admissions process.
Meanwhile, the growing ranks of smart and ethical entrepreneurs like
those at Vericant are providing a very useful and timely service. Long
may they prosper.