Chinese Students Love American Universities

December 4, 2014 9:45 AM

In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that, despite "massive" investment into higher education in China, the number of Chinese students in the United States reached an all-time high. Is this just a part of the natural, steady growth that we should expect, given China's economic success? And will Chinese graduates take home the human capital they build abroad?

This post describes one unsurprising trend – yes, more Chinese students sit in our classrooms – but also one extraordinary shift.

Let us look closely at how Chinese university students have voted with their feet (and wallets) in recent years. The figure below compares total enrollment of Chinese students at American universities in recent years with the enrollments of Indian students. The trends were parallel until 2010. But then it all changed:

China India US Universities

India's population is catching up with China's, but as the number of students from China rose by 66% between 2010 and 2012, the number of Indian students has actually fallen. In fact, there are now more undergraduate Chinese students in the U.S. than Indian students at all levels of tertiary education.

Is an American education unusually fashionable in China? We looked at total numbers students, and we can also learn about relative popularity by looking at shares of foreign student in different countries who are Chinese. The table shows that Australia is also extremely popular. More than one in three foreign students there is Chinese. Selected European countries with good universities are far behind:


The willingness of Chinese graduates to return, implied by the available data, will not make reformers in China optimistic. Only about a third of Chinese students return home, according to the Ministry of Education estimates. A report by Michael G. Finn (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education) shows that fewer than one in five Chinese recipients of doctoral degree have returned home (page 5). By contrast, 82% of Chilean U.S.-educated PhDs left the U.S. within five years.

Where will talented Chinese graduates work?

We should not necessarily attribute the high propensity to stay among Chinese graduates to a lack of opportunities in their home country. The figures are only an incomplete indicator of students' preferences. We do not actually know whether foreign students are reluctant to go home, or whether they are simply attracted by life and work in the United States.

Still, if Chinese higher education is to shine in research and teaching, many more people – at all stages of their career – who were educated in Western universities will need to share their talent, management experiences, and tacit knowledge with Chinese institutions of higher learning. As The Economist reports:

The premium on foreign experience in China has created perverse incentives, says Cao Cong of Nottingham University in Britain. It sends the message to today's best and brightest that they should still spend their most productive years abroad. More than 300,000 students leave each year.

China has to find better ways to motivate its best students to return.

Excessive pressure on the American system?

We should put the influx of foreign students into an international context. The proportion of students at U.S. colleges and universities who are foreign remains modest relative to several OECD peers:

Share of Foreign Students

American universities are clearly not overwhelmed by foreign students. Of course, that should not obscure the fact that many American universities continue to exert a powerful pull on high school graduates abroad (not just Chinese students).

Later today, a congressional hearing titled "Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China's Influence on U.S. Universities?" is scheduled to take place in Washington. Christopher Smith, the chairman of the relevant subcommittee believes that "we have to ask if there are any hidden costs for American schools and colleges seeking access to that [Chinese] market." It is like asking about the downside of exporting knowledge. We should celebrate the popularity of our exports. Singling out a specific importer is not a tasteful way to treat loyal buyers.

Jan Zilinsky is a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Follow him on Twitter at @janzilinsky.

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