As enrollment numbers decline, schools are looking abroad for ways to build the bottom line. Among the international students that flock to the U.S. no country represents more strongly than China. Chinese students in America numbered 304,000 as of 2014-2015, according to Institute of International Education (IIE) annual report. That total had increased five times in a decade and is expected to continue growing.
The flood of interest from the People’s Republic of China is not surprising. I taught college in Beijing for two years and became well-acquainted with the phenomena of the PRC’s “little emperors.” These are children born to the country’s newly wealthy in the decades the country restricted families to one child. The one-child policy created millions of cherished, entitled only children — all jockeying for limited spots in the nation’s top universities. The fierce competition at home — and increased global pressure to master the English language — has prompted millions of doting parents to search overseas for ways to give their darlings an edge.
A 2016 Foreign Policy report ranks schools with the highest student population from China in order from one to 25. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign claims the top spot. Syracuse University appears at No. 25.
While no one would dispute the quality of all the listed schools, the rankings demonstrate that Chinese students are drawn to more than a college’s U.S. brand power. Otherwise, Michigan State (No. 6) would not attract almost as many Chinese students as Columbia University (No. 5). Carnegie Mellon (No. 23) would have more Chinese students than Ohio State (No. 7).
What makes a school appealing to these children of the PRC’s newly wealthy? Many campuses work hard to draw students from China, for one.
In 2015, U of I launched Chinese-language broadcasts of their football games. Purdue University (No. 3) holds pre-departure seminars for students before they leave the PRC. Now that the University of Indiana (No. 9) hosts thousands of Chinese students, Bloomington has adopted a Mandarin-language newspaper, the Blooming Times.
Many of the top schools also have strong international programs. 22% of Carnegie Mellon’s students hail from abroad.
The interest in U.S. schools is not just restricted to colleges and universities. Private K-12 institutions are developing international programs with a China focus. Families are discovering that sending their kids to the U.S. at a younger age increases their chances of gaining acceptance to a prestigious U.S. college.
“A lot of Chinese families are realizing that they have to get into the process earlier,” Christine Yeh, a University of San Francisco researcher who studies the East Asian immigrant experience in U.S. schools, said in a Washington Post article. “It’s getting so competitive.”
The article focuses on Cape Cod Academy, a private school in the Northeast with a robust international program. Students from China pay $50,000 annually to attend.
Are you looking to build your school’s brand in China? You might start with an international pathway provider, a company that can raise your profile abroad. Or, you might try breaking into the market on your own. You could sponsor ESL courses in Shanghai or foster a relationship with a Chinese secondary school. You might establish a presence on one of China’s wildly popular social media channels like WeChat or Douban, a site devoted to cultural reviews and networking with around 200 million unique visits monthly.
Whatever route you choose, know that connections have primacy in China. With the right relationships, your school’s brand will gain currency regardless of how well known it is in the U.S. In Chinese, the term for connections is guanxi. For good and ill, those with the right guanxi make a fortune.