Why do so many Chinese students choose US universities?

By Sarah Svoboda
BBC News

media captionChinese students explain why they came to the US - and how college life differs to home

There are more than a quarter of a million students from China in colleges in the United States - a third of all international students in the country - and almost a fivefold increase since 2000. Why do so many now come to study in the US?

It is final exams week at the University of Illinois and students lucky enough to have finished their studies are lying on the grass of the quad, laughing with friends in the sunshine. It is an idyllic college scene.

Junfeng Guan is not one of the lucky ones - at least not yet. The 20-year-old, who goes by his English name Jayden, still has one more test to take and is heading to find a place to study, lugging a backpack full of books.

image captionThere are almost 5,000 students from China enrolled at the University of Illinois

The electrical engineering student is not complaining. He has already overcome far bigger challenges since making the move from China to America's mid-west where the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is surrounded by farmland.

The rural setting was initially a huge culture shock for him. "The first time I went to Chicago I was going to cry... I'm so happy to get to a big city."

Rising numbers

Jayden's journey to study in the US is one that a staggering number of Chinese students are taking.

The most recent figures, from the 2013-14 academic year, show that 274,000 international students in the US hailed from China - far more than from any other country.

That was a 17% increase on the previous year and represented the tenth consecutive year of rising numbers.

image captionStudents from China are paying more than $46,000 a year for their time in the US

At UIUC, the trend is noticeable. The school boasts the largest number of international students of any public higher education institution in the US, nearly 5,000 of whom are Chinese.

The typical overseas student has changed from being a "graduate student from Korea to being an undergrad from China", says Martin McFarlane, the university's associate director of international student and scholar services.

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The big shift in undergraduate applications is so significant that Mr McFarlane's office now organises three pre-arrival orientations in China to prepare incoming students and their parents on what to expect when arriving on campus.

More choice

Jayden chose the UIUC without ever having been to the US.

He turned down an offer at a Chinese university in Shanghai because a Western education offered him the freedom to choose his focus of study.

"I want to go where I can learn whatever I want", he explained.

image copyrightReuters
image captionPupils exercise in Zhejiang province: Students come to the US for a more flexible education system

That is representative of a number of Chinese students. They want to get out of a schooling system that uses test scores to determine the subjects students will take, which makes it difficult to change once these have been assigned.

UIUC's strong reputation in engineering ultimately determined his choice to come to the campus.

'One-child' generation

There are other non-academic factors fuelling the spike in students going to the US, such as the expansion of China's middle class and policies on families.

Charles Tucker, vice provost for Undergraduate Education and Innovation at UIUC, points out that "children who were born under the one-child policy are now of college-educated age… and changes in the Chinese economy have promoted individual wealth in families".

The wealth that enables Chinese families to pay the high prices of US degrees is also beneficial for university budgets.

image captionChinese families make a major investment when they send their children to study in the US

International students at UIUC pay total costs of about $46,000 to $53,000, (£30,150 to £34,632) including tuition and accommodation.

Local students from Illinois pay about $30,000 to $35,000 (£20,000 to £23,000) and US students from outside the state pay about $46,000 to $51,000 (£30,150 to £33,000).

UIUC makes clear they do not accept international students purely for revenue generation reasons, and attribute the higher fees to added services.

US students from outside of the state pay more because their families are not subsidising the university the same way a local family would through tax-dollars.

Family savings

Xuran (Sherry) Peng, one of the students from China, says her parents had to use a large portion of their savings to send her to UIUC.

They believe it is an investment that will benefit her entire family, including her six-year-old half brother.

image captionThe University of Illinois runs three annual "pre-arrival" events for students in China

"I feel like it's part of my responsibility to earn the tuition for him, because my parents actually have the big wish that both of us can finish our education in the US and probably work in the US in the future," she says.

Sherry attended a traditional Chinese high school, but lived in the US with her family for two years when she was seven years old and has fond memories of that experience.

She says there were around 60 other students in her high school that also chose to come to the US for college.

"In China, there are also lots of international high schools where people are aiming to get into the top universities in the US," explains Sherry.

China has seen a rapid development of international schools in recent years, showing the country's growing demand for a Western-style education.

Such a convergence of eastern and western education is seen as preparing students for life after university.

And what does it mean for individuals?

"I feel a little more American now, but I still have a long way to go because if I want to make some American friends I need to practise my small talk and... overcome the culture gap," says Jayden.