Critical Thinking Chinese Students Abroad

This story originally appeared on The Wall Street Journal’s Chinese website under the headline “中国学生如何把美国文凭回报最大化“

Mere figures tell a complex story of explosive migration, wealth and cultural value in the East as the number of Chinese students attending U.S. colleges has grown exponentially in recent years. But tangible returns on such hefty educational investments have yet to be seen.

There were 194,029 Chinese students studying in the U.S. in the 2011-2012 academic year, representing the largest group of international students from a single country and accounting for 25.4% of all foreign students studying in the U.S. The figure also marks a 23% increase from just the year before and a 207% increase from a decade ago, according to the Institute of International Education.

Associated Press
Duke University

Attending a U.S. institution of higher learning is a costly venture for Chinese families, more than 60% of whom privately fund students’ costs, according to the IIE. Unlike American students who are often eligible for in-state tuition breaks, financial aid and numerous scholarships, most Chinese students must foot the full bill, which could run in the neighborhood of $200,000 just for tuition and fees over four years. In 2011, China’s per capita GDP was $5445, according to the World Bank.

Charlotte Fan, now a 23-year-old working in asset management for BlackRock in New York City, has more to add to that bill. Originally from Shanghai, Ms. Fan’s journey from China to her eventual alma mater at Duke University also cost her thousands of dollars in TOEFL and SAT classes, English tutors and flights to and from Hong Kong and Seoul just to take the SAT, which isn’t administered in mainland China.

As more students race across the Pacific for an American college degree, more are also finding themselves at odds with an unfamiliar culture. Chinese students, accustomed to an education system of rote memorization and heavy testing, struggle to acclimate to the American liberal arts system, which emphasizes analytical and critical thinking, university officials say. The influx of students from China has also allowed many to self-segregate and study through weekends, stripping them of the social scene that dominates an American college experience.

Michigan State University has 2,845 undergraduate students from China this year, up from just 43 in 2005. Peter Briggs, director of MSU’s Office for International Students and Scholars, notes that while there are Chinese students who take on social leadership positions and are hungry for internships, a large number still fail to fully engage in all aspects of American campus life.

“We could do a lot better to see groups intermixing because the ideals of international education are that we learn from the world’s diversity, we’re all missing out if we fail to engage,” Mr. Briggs says. “But if [Chinese students] also are not reaching out as proactively as they ought to, they’re not necessarily taking the fullest advantage of what we would consider a full bachelor’s degree program. I’d even take it one step further — why are they in the U.S. compared to Australia or Britain where they don’t have the liberal arts that is the cornerstone for American education?”

That failure for Chinese students to integrate, combined with the price tag for an American education, frustrates students like Jocelyn Jia, a 22-year-old communications major from Hainan. Now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ms. Jia is seizing every opportunity to make American friends and experience what she couldn’t have if she had attended college in China.

Jocelyn Jia
North Carolina State University student Jocelyn Jia.

“I think [many Chinese students] are wasting their money. They spend a lot of money to come, but if you’re here to hang out with the Chinese in America, why don’t you just go back to study in China?” she says. “Most international students study all the time and don’t go out, they think I’m too crazy and ask me, ‘Why do you go out every weekend? Why do you drink?’ But I study when I study and I have fun when I have fun. If you just come to study and only hang out with Chinese people, all you bring with you back to China is the diploma, it’s a piece of paper, that’s it.”

Integration isn’t as easy as it seems for many Chinese students who struggle just to get by academically, Mr. Briggs says. Classes with Chinese students see a dramatic decrease in class participation. Students are sometimes forced to choose between working hard to assimilate culturally and keeping their grades up — a failure to be college-ready that could be linked to the large number of falsified application documents as the chance to study in America becomes increasingly novel. An estimated 90% of recommendation letters are fake, 70% of essays are written by someone else other than the applicant and 50% of high school transcripts are manipulated, according to Zinch China, a consulting group that advises American colleges.

That tradeoff is costing Chinese students dearly. Ms. Jia says that her most rewarding takeaways from college in the U.S. are the experiences outside the classroom. She has learned to be more independent and has acquired much stronger communication skills. It’s also those soft skills behind the diploma that employers like L.E.K. Consulting’s Shanghai office seek from graduates who return to China, known as “hai gui,” or “sea turtles.”

“We do hire Chinese students from the U.S. and the U.K because their English is better, and what I want out of it is a more mature person who is better socially,” says Ken Chen, a partner in L.E.K.’s Shanghai office in charge of recruiting. “I look for people who are doing something different rather than just studying or social activities that are not limited to other Chinese people like Chinese Club. And that’s what I think an American college education gets you is knowing how to socialize, having not just memorized things but emotional intelligence and knowing how to think and how to solve problems.”

The number of students returning to China after studying abroad has also jumped significantly in recent years — to 134,800 in 2010, up 375% from 2005, according to figures from China’s Ministry of Education. A recent survey of Chinese abroad by recruiting agency Zhilian Zhaopin found that 72% return to China after graduation or a few years of work.

But contrary to many students’ expectations, having the American diploma isn’t a golden ticket to employment in China. Zhilian Zhaopin’s report also found that more than 70% of employers won’t give preferential treatment to haigui candidates, and almost 8% say they actually prefer not to hire “hai gui.” Reasons for that include mismatch in salary expectations as well as “hai guis’” lack of personal connections, or “guan xi,” compared to their Chinese-educated counterparts.

A recent study by Wei Sun, an economics graduate student at the University of California-Santa Barbara, found that “hai gui” venture capitalists in China proved to be less productive and less successful than their Chinese-educated peers. The opportunity costs of losing “guanxi” while abroad and being trained overseas proved to be too different from the demands of the Chinese market. But Ms. Sun suggests that with enough governmental support to incentivize young people to return to China with greater human capital, “hai guis” have an opportunity to further contribute to a flourishing Chinese economy.

“I think all the money invested for an American education is worth it, I feel like they have accumulated better human capital, but I think in the long run it’s better for China, even if it might take longer for those students and parents to get the return on their investment,” Ms. Sun says. “But they are going to be successful in the long run.”

And Ms. Fan, who was able to find a social-school balance, says her Duke education was worth the deep investment. After working for eight months, the value of social and networking skills have become apparent, she says.

“There’s an old saying in China that the best way of using money is to invest in your child’s education, and my whole family believes in this,” Ms. Fan says. “I’ve learned a lot and changed a lot in college — not just to learn knowledge, but more importantly the way of thinking, creativity, communication, the soft skills you never learn from books that you learn from day-to-day life and interacting with all the smart kids around you in school. Those sorts of things a Chinese education doesn’t focus on.”

– Emmeline Zhao

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For Yali Liu, the hardest thing about UK higher education is having to go to the pub. "It's how much you need to invest socially with other students," she says. "I don't like going to a pub or club, but people just keep going out and I feel the pressure to go out too." This is because, unlike in China, she says, there is so much emphasis during the course on teamwork and group projects, so socialising with other students is crucial. "It's not about what you know and how you work, it's really about working with other people – especially British people," she says. "I find that so difficult." Then there's what to talk about when she does go out. Why do her fellow students spend so much time analysing the TV programme First Dates, for example?

Liu, 23, who is in her final year of a BSc in business administration at the University of Bath's school of management, is one of more than 80,000 Chinese students studying in UK universities. They make up the largest group of international students – there are now nearly as many Chinese as UK full-time postgraduate students and over 38,000 undergraduates – and their numbers are growing fast. As a result, they are responsible for a large proportion of the more than £10bn a year that international students contribute to the UK economy.

But while the numbers of Chinese students attending UK universities is a success story, new research shows that where their academic attainment is concerned, the picture is not so good. While nearly 68% of all students – and 52% of overseas students from outside the European Union – graduated with a first or 2.1 last year, this was true of only 42% of students from China, according to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).

This undermines the traditional stereotype of the hard-working, high-achieving Chinese student. "There is all this talk – almost propaganda – about how brilliant the Chinese education system is, so when they come to the UK you would expect them to do really well," says Zhiqi Wang, senior lecturer in accounting and finance at Bath Spa University and one of the authors of the new research. Wang says the reason for Chinese students' low academic attainment is unknown. "We could clearly see the poor performance of Chinese students at UK universities but we had no idea why it was." So to find an explanation, Wang and Ian Crawford, a teaching fellow in accounting and finance at the University of Bath, decided to compare the performance of Chinese and British undergraduates in each year of their degree. Taking a sample of just over 100 British and Chinese accounting and finance first-degree students who enrolled in 2008, and comparing their average marks and final degree classification, they found a dramatic drop in performance among the Chinese students between year one, when they performed better than their UK counterparts, and year two, when they performed worse. This did not seem to be explained by their previous academic qualifications.

Crawford and Wang believe the slump in attainment can be put down to two factors. First, Chinese students fail to adapt their approaches to learning and so their performance declines in the later years of a degree when the complexity of the work increases. And, second, while the UK and Chinese education systems are not that different, the strong focus in China on study and achieving qualifications means many young people enrol in higher education due to pressure from family or the jobs market rather than their own motivation.

According to Cristina Iannelli, professor of education and social stratification at the University of Edinburgh, part of the problem may be the changing socio-economic background of Chinese undergraduates. Using figures from the Hesa, Ianelli found that while 85% of Chinese undergraduates at British universities in 2000 and 2001 were mature students, often funded by the Chinese government, since 2004, they have have been younger, more likely to be women, funded by their families and therefore more in need of support. "We accept all these students but we don't know much about them," says Ianelli. "I see some of them struggling because they really don't know before coming here exactly what is expected of them." She says it can be difficult to measure how well they are prepared academically because it is hard to benchmark the qualifications they have against A-levels. "Are we just opening up our universities and we don't care what their prior attainment is, or are we actually comparing qualifications across international education systems?" she asks. "We may be accepting students who aren't as good as they should be. Or it could be language, or experiencing a different culture."

Gita Sedghi, lecturer in chemistry at the University of Liverpool, who ran a project last year for the Higher Education Academy on preparing for the arrival of a group of Chinese chemistry students, says contacting students before their arrival, assigning them mentors, encouraging peer-assisted learning and ensuring they are properly integrated with home students can help international students adapt to a different culture. But, she says, language skills can still affect how some students perform academically, with those from China tending to perform worse in exams when written explanations are needed than in exams relying on calculations. "Chinese students' culture is that they work to get credits and marks and because they don't get credit for going to English classes, their attendance can be poor," she says. "We have now asked for them to get a certificate of attendance at these classes."

Liu says that this mentality of working only for credits could affect Chinese students' performance in another way. In China, degree classifications do not exist; working incredibly hard at school and performing well in exams to get to a good university matters more than what happens once they are there. "It's a one-off event and nothing can change it," she says. "Afterwards students just relax. They never have the same pressure again."

But it could also be that UK institutions need to work harder to take into account what a big step it is for young people from a radically different culture and linguistic background to get to grips with student life in the UK. "Our home students don't go abroad because they aren't confident enough to go," says Sedghi. "These kids [from China] are coming here and facing a big challenge. I think confidence is very important and we can help."

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