The China Boom
We're so screwed. Chinese youth (and the youth in many other countries) are busting their butts, while ours are drinking…and worse:
Ms. Li is part of a record wave of Chinese high school graduates enrolling in American colleges, joining the fabric of campus life as roommates and study partners and contributing to the global perspectives to which colleges are so eager to expose their students.
"China is going to matter greatly to all students in the 21st century," says Robert Weisbuch, president of Drew, which has increased its international enrollment by 60 percent in the last five years. "We feel it is important to provide the opportunity for American and Chinese students to learn from one another."
While China's students have long filled American graduate schools, its undergraduates now represent the fastest-growing group of international students. In 2008-9, more than 26,000 were studying in the United States, up from about 8,000 eight years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education.
Students are ending up not just at nationally known universities, but also at regional colleges, state schools and even community colleges that recruit overseas. Most of these students pay full freight (international students are not eligible for government financial aid) — a benefit for campuses where the economic downturn has gutted endowments or state financing.
The boom parallels China's emergence as the world's largest economy after the United States. China is home to a growing number of middle-class parents who have saved for years to get their only child into a top school, hoping for an advantage in a competitive job market made more so by a surge in college graduates. Since the 1990s, China has doubled its number of higher education institutions. More than 60 percent of high school graduates now attend a university, up from 20 percent in the 1980s. But this surge has left millions of diploma-wielding young people unable to find white-collar work in a country still heavily reliant on low-paying manufacturing.
"The Chinese are going to invest in anything that gives them an edge, and having a U.S. degree certainly gives them that edge back home," says Peggy Blumenthal, a vice president at the Institute of International Education. American colleges offer the chance to gain fluency in English, develop real-world skills, and land a coveted position with a multinational corporation or government agency.
…As a freshman at Central Michigan University, Qi Fan realized that even Americans come from different cultures. His roommates — one black, one white — spoke to him in different accents and had social circles that largely matched their own skin color. Sometimes they would grab him out of bed and drag him to parties where beer pong was played all night.
Mr. Qi had learned of Central Michigan from a Chinese friend who went there, and it was talked up by a company in China that recruits students. Originally he had considered Britain or Germany, but his parents decided there was little point in paying for college in "second-tier" countries, and they would send him to the United States "no matter what, because it's the super power."
But the American myth faded once he settled in. He disliked a campus culture that "was all about drinking," and wanted a high-profile school closer to New York's finance world. In his sophomore year, Mr. Qi transferred to the University at Albany, of the State University of New York. He says he is happy there, makes trips to New York City in the car he just bought, and avoids any drinking culture by living with other Chinese off campus.
Partying is an American college rite of passage, but socializing in China is usually conducted around the table, where close friends cook, eat and play games together. The fun in standing around a dark room filled with strangers, speakers blaring, is often lost in translation.
Frances Liu, a Yale sophomore from the bustling city of Tianjin, remembers one night freshman year when friends started smoking marijuana. And then offered her the joint. "They were like, 'Frances, come on,' " she says, rolling her eyes. She declined, but the pressure to fit in meant plenty of late nights. "I don't want to be in a bar drunk and grinding with someone I've never met and will never see again," Ms. Liu says. "I've tried that. I went to parties every single weekend freshman year and realized it's not for me."
Note, however, that other countries' best and brightest come here for post-secondary education, but not for K-12. Why? Because the former is still one of the best systems in the world, while the latter is mediocre at best – for reasons I discuss on page 86 of my school reform presentation (posted at: www.arightdenied.org/presentation-slides)