As Relations Deteriorate, Chinese Students Weigh The Cost of US Education

Just how much, figuratively and literally, do today’s Chinese international students value an American education?

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5:47 PM HKT, Thu January 10, 2019 4 mins read

In 1986, 23-year-old Lu Junqing decided to study in the US, where she would eventually become a professor and help raise three children — including this writer.

By that time, schooling had already changed her life. Despite having received middling education in rural Hunan Province, Lu studied hard and scored well on China’s national university entrance exam, the gaokao. After college, she earned a coveted scholarship to a US school. At that time, America had roughly one-fifth of China’s population and 15 times its GDP, not to mention a much more robust research environment. Lu seized her chance.

In 2019, American universities are looking much less appealing by comparison. China’s tertiary education system has both expanded and improved, offering higher education to tens of millions more students. And although students are now required to pay tuition — until the second half of the ’90s, the State covered the cost of schooling — that cost still pales in comparison to the US. Currently, an estimated 44 million Americans groan under the total burden of 1.48 trillion USD in student loan debt.

Yet that hasn’t deterred over 360,000 Chinese (including short-term students) from studying in the US during the 2017-18 school year alone, according to the International Educational Exchange. While these are still only a tiny fraction of China’s students, they make up a third of international learners in America. With them, overseas students brought an estimated 42.4 billion USD that year into the US economy.

It’s a marked contrast that begs the question: Just how much, figuratively and literally, do today’s Chinese international students value an American education?

Big Investment, Small Returns

In interviews with students and education professionals alike, one thing becomes apparent: Chinese families aren’t necessarily looking for an economic return on their investments.

Ronald Po, founder of Chinese company Capstone Prep, says that he sometimes warns parents against considering an expensive overseas education.

“I could tell you that it costs your child 10 million dollars to get into Harvard, and your child would only get 1 million dollars back in terms of incremental income and opportunities. But parents would still readily pay for that.”

The expenses can begin well before kids enter high school. In Hong Kong, where Po first launched Capstone in 2003, so-called “aggressive parents” begin investing in a child’s extracurricular activities and tuition as early as age 10.

Po estimates the monthly cost to be 10,000-25,000HKD (roughly 1,280-3,200USD), and says parents in mainland China may spend even more. “Some of them didn’t have the means to [go to a top school], and now they do. They just want to give their child every opportunity.”

For students like Deng “Jack” Yanke, overseas schooling offers a more specific type of opportunity. The international high school senior wants to study communications but feels restricted by the mainland’s media environment, which is dominated by state-run outlets and official press releases. “I want to learn how the media system works in other countries and other areas,” he says.


But neither he, nor classmate Chen “Charlotte” Xiwen, are applying to American schools. “What I have noticed is that while the world rankings of these universities are similar,” Chen remarks, “the US schools are always the more difficult ones to get into.” Not only are acceptance rates lower, but the application process is also more complex than the UK, Canada, or Australia, with top colleges requiring two or three standardized tests and multiple essays per school.

But for Frank Zhang, a junior at Midwestern liberal arts school Carleton College, the time and effort was worth it.

Zhang estimates his father spent between 300-400,000RMB (around 38,400-51,120USD) so that he could get into a US university. “Compared to friends at my high school,” he recalls, “the price was average.”

After 9th grade, Zhang entered a private secondary school in Shenzhen that would allow him to substitute an international curriculum for gaokao studies. To further boost his chances, he signed up for extracurricular English courses, SAT reading section prep, one-on-one TOEFL classes (at an extravagant 115USD per 1.5 hours), and a year’s worth of app consultations from an agency.

Looking back, the media studies major and budding filmmaker considers some of those test prep classes “a waste of money.”

But now, he says, he’s gaining invaluable “perspective, inner thinking, [and] critical thinking ability.”

“I Applied to 20 Schools Already”

Relatively speaking, Zhang had the luxury of applying from one of China’s four “first tier” megacities, which abound with educational resources and institutions for the internationally-minded.

For Rui Cai, who lives in the nearby industrial hub of Foshan, things haven’t been as easy.

In his first two years of public high school, he says, “most of my time has been spent on the classes… and only on the weekend [do] I have time to do my English stuff,” like test preparation and language classes. He makes use of lunchtimes and review periods to focus on his international studies.

Now in his senior year, as other classmates prepare for the gaokao, Rui is in full-on applications mode. He nonchalantly reveals that he’s applied to 20 colleges in the US already, a number that would likely shock and dismay most American high schoolers.


After studying in the US, Rui hopes to land a job at a big tech company in Silicon Valley “like Facebook or Apple.” He feels that would make all the hard work and money worth it.

Recently Rui admits he’s worried about the Trump administration’s plans to restrict student visa stays, but says it’s too late to change his plans. “I still have to try because I’m on this path right now.”

In a separate interview, Rui’s mother Li Cao reflected on her own educational experiences. Both she and her husband entered college some 30 years ago, when only a small minority had access to higher studies.

“At the time you could say we got a relatively good education in China…[although you] can’t compare it to now.”

The decision to apply to US schools was Rui’s. But Li and her husband encouraged their son to go abroad for a “better opportunity to achieve his dreams,” despite the tenfold or greater cost of tuition.

“As of now the US higher education system has had about 100 years to develop, [while China has had] only about a few decades,” says Li, although she thinks the gap is narrowing.

For now, she believes a US college will give her son a higher level of introspection and expose him to different ways of thinking. While a better salary would also be welcome, she says, ultimately “[we] hope he can become his best self.”

Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

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