CRF Blog

The long march from China to the Ivies

by Bill Hayes

In The long march from China to the Ivies, 1843 looks at how Chinese students prepare to be admitted to top American universities.

It is one of China’s curious contradictions that, even as the government tries to eradicate foreign influences from the country’s universities, the flood of Chinese students leaving for the West continues to rise. Over the past decade, the number of mainland Chinese students enrolled in American colleges and universities has nearly quintupled, from 62,523 in 2005 to 304,040 last year, according to the Institute of International Education. Many of these students are the sons and daughters of China’s rising elite, establishment families who can afford tuition fees of $60,000 a year for America’s top universities — and the tens of thousands of dollars needed to prepare for the transition. Even the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s president and the man driving the campaign against foreign ideas, recently studied — under a pseudonym — at Harvard University.

Among Western educators, the Chinese system is famous for producing an elite corps of high-school students who regularly finish at the top of global test rankings, far ahead of their American and British counterparts. Yet so many Chinese families are now opting out of this system that selling education to Chinese students has become a profitable business for the West. They now account for nearly a third of all foreign students in America, contributing $9.8 billion a year to the United States’ economy. In Britain, too, Chinese students top the international lists. And the outflow shows no sign of subsiding: according to a recent Hurun Report, an annual survey of China’s elite, 80% of the country’s wealthy families plan to send their children abroad for education.

Not every Chinese student is driven … by the desire to escape the grind of the gaokao and get a more liberal education. For many Chinese families, sending a child to a Western university is a way of signalling status — yet “another luxury brand purchase,” as Jiang Xueqin, an educational consultant, puts it. For students faring poorly in the gaokao system, moreover, foreign universities offer an escape valve, and a way to gain an edge in the increasingly competitive job and marriage market back home. And for wealthy families seeking a safe haven for their assets — by one estimate more than $1 trillion in capital left China in 2015 — a foreign education for a child can serve as a first step towards capital flight, foreign investment, even eventual emigration.

The vast majority of Chinese applicants end up in large state universities, many in the American Midwest, where populations of more than 4,000 Chinese students (out of student bodies of more than 30,000) can segregate into miniature Chinatowns on campus. But name-brand universities have a cult-like allure. Every aspiring overseas student in China can rattle off the names of the top ten or twenty American universities. Chinese bookstores are lined with memoirs and how-to guides with titles such as “Stanford Silver Bullet” or “Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge”. The original bible of this motivational genre, “Harvard Girl Liu Yiting”, describes the “scientifically proven methods” that a couple used to turn their daughter into an academic star. In one of the tests they devised, she held ice in her bare hands for long periods to toughen herself up.

Competition for entrance into these schools is ferocious. Of the roughly 40,000 Chinese students applying to universities in the United States last year, around 200 were accepted into Ivy League schools. As a Beijing-based consultant puts it drily: “Harvard only accepts seven or eight Chinese students a year, and one of them is bound to be the offspring of a tycoon or a leader.” American applicants have it easy by comparison. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, accepted 9.7% of domestic applicants in 2015 — and a mere 3% of international applicants.

The application process can seem bafflingly complex. [more]