By Yifei Zhang
In summer 2013, before coming to Grinnell College, I watched a movie called American Dreams in China. It tells the story of three friends at a Chinese university who dream to go to America. Although only one eventually succeeded, three of them together successfully built an empire in the education industry in China, focusing exclusively on helping students prepare for the standardized test required for admission to American universities. My Chinese friends at Grinnell are more than familiar with the realities depicted in the movie; many of them, in fact, succeeded with the company’s help.
It is absolutely no exaggeration to say there is an American fervor in China. According Jeffery Mervis, the number of Chinese undergraduate students in the U.S. has grown from 8252 in 2000 to 110,550 in 2013. One reason for this, according to Mr. Mervis, is “the chance for a liberal arts education at a U.S. university is an attractive alternative to the rigid undergraduate training offered by most Chinese universities.” My school, Grinnell College, a small private liberal arts college with about 1,700 students in central Iowa, has attracted more than 650 applicants from Mainland China, which constitutes approximately ten percent of Grinnell’s entire applicant pool, according to Grinnell’s Office of Admission and Financial Aid. The reasons for this surge have long been examined by both American and Chinese media. Some more important ones include increasing disposable income of the Chinese middle class, high-quality education in English, and the reputation of many U.S. universities. China’s domestic situation seems to have made studying in the U.S. a propitious investment. But is it really as beneficial as it seems for Chinese students to study in America?
It is undeniable that a U.S. university education and degree could potentially do much good to Chinese students once they return to China. English proficiency, familiarity with the American culture, and the liberal arts education all equip them to be competitive applicants in the job market. But this comes with a cost. There is a Chinese website that lists the tuition and room of some high ranking universities in Beijing, one of the most expensive cities in China. It shows that, except for Art and Finance majors, the rest of the majors cost about RMB5,500 a year and the room costs RMB1,500, which is altogether about $1,100. A typical college student’s annual allowance is about RMB15,000, which is roughly $2,400, so we safely estimate that the total cost will not exceed $4,000 a year. But the cost can range from $20,000 to $80,000 a year for a U.S. university. Taking Grinnell as an example, the comprehensive 2015-2016 fee is estimated to be $53,398, which is more than thirteen times of that for a Chinese university in one of China’s most expensive cities. Then the problem is, especially for the middle class Chinese, whether it is worthwhile to invest this huge amount of money for a child’s education.
One important way to gauge whether this investment is worth making is to determine whether students with an American university degree could find better jobs when they return to China. This question would have sounded ridiculous thirty years ago when a foreign degree was still scarce in China. But after 2010, the number of students studying in the U.S. has soared dramatically, and it is questionable whether Chinese employers still prefer U.S. educated students to domestically trained students. For example, in an article published in Chinese media, many employers have stated clearly that they will not treat foreign trained students preferentially and are more careful when employing these students because of the abundance of foreign degrees in China. Moreover, the quality of education offered by the Chinese universities has improved dramatically as well. The government has invested billions of dollars into higher education, especially through Project 985 and Project 211, which provide extra funding to 150 carefully selected universities. The Chinese employers are emphasizing the ability of the candidates rather than the degree itself. This puts U.S. educated undergraduate students in a very disadvantageous position because they become unfamiliar with Chinese business culture, which is mainly learned through on-campus activities and internships in China. In fact, the number of students with a foreign degree but who are unable to find a job is so great that the Chinese invented the word haidai to refer to these people. Haidai essentially means coming back from overseas but still waiting to be hired, and it has the same sound as the Chinese word for “seaweed.” It is clear that Chinese parents should stop and ponder before sending their children abroad.
A U.S. education appeals to many Chinese students also because it offers an opportunity to immerse themselves in American culture. Thirty years ago, when there were not many Chinese students in American universities, these students had no choice but to interact with their classmates from other countries. But as the number of Chinese students dramatically increased, there are now enough Chinese students to form their own social circles. In Chinese this is called baotuan, which literally means to hold each other and form a group and can be translated as “clustering.” This problem certainly manifests even at Grinnell, which has a relatively small Chinese student community. Still, many Chinese students live together, eat together, study together, and have parties together without much interaction with their schoolmates outside class. Honestly, I am not totally innocent of baotuan, even though I have been abroad for almost seven years and have been comfortable interacting with people from completely different backgrounds. This problem can be more severe in larger universities. For example, there is a case in Michigan State University where Chinese students formed a gang to threaten and beat up other Chinese students. It seems that the Chinese student population functions independently from the larger university population because even the Chinese gang targets only the Chinese students. Given the increasing number of Chinese students in American universities, this problem may only get more acute. The social value of an American education then becomes deprived.
Many students come to study in America because they want to work here after they graduate. But the recent economic and political situations in the U.S., in fact, make this a very difficult goal. An article published by the New Republic in December 2014 states that “while universities roll out the welcome mat for international students, U.S. immigration law ushers them out soon after they graduate. International students who want to work permanently in American after graduation have to navigate a Kafka-esque maze of immigration law that demands incredible amounts of money, time, and uncertainty.” Hence the process to obtain a work visa is not as easy and simple as many students presume. This extremely complex and arduous process should cause those students who intend to work in the U.S. permanently to consider carefully the feasibility of their plan before making their decisions.
In conclusion, the soaring number of Chinese students in America seems to suggest China is experiencing an “American Fervor.” This trend may lead many Chinese to think sending their children to study in America is an intrinsically good thing. But as this essay demonstrates, the benefits of an American higher education might not seem as rewarding as one might assume. Before making the potentially life changing decision to study in the U.S., both students and their parents must evaluate the fitness and worthiness of an American degree.