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US-China Education Exchanges Present Opportunities and Challenges

Feb 08 , 2013

 As the balance of trade continues to widen between the US and China, education collaboration increasingly becomes a shining light. Based on the latest data from the US Department of Commerce, international students contributed $21.3 billion to the US economy annually through living expenses for themselves and accompanying dependents, expenditures on tuition, books, fees and other education related expenses. China led the way contributing close to $4 billion followed by India, South Korea, the European Union and Canada. China’s contribution represented a 28.3% increase over the previous year compared to a 6.5% increase for India.

So why the sudden increase? In a culture that views education as a critical factor for advancement; economic growth combined with high personal savings rates and a one child policy, has put a college education within the reach of more people. The problem is that unless these students get into the top tier universities in China they will not get the higher paying jobs or any job at all for some, upon graduation. Youth unemployment is becoming a concern for the government, recent graduates and their families placing even more stress on the students to get into a top tier school.

For university entrance, Chinese students have to take the grueling nine-hour gaokao entrance exam that is offered only once a year. This is the sole determinant for admission selection for most students. Faced with the prospect of a second tier university in China, families who can afford it are choosing to send their child abroad to study. The United States has become the first choice.

Traditionally, the vast majority of Chinese students coming to the United States have been graduate students studying science, technology, engineering or math – the so called STEM disciplines. Most of these students studied at large public or private research universities. While graduate students still make up the majority of students coming to the US representing 49% of the total, undergraduate enrollments are catching up fast. According to the latest numbers released by the Institute for International Education (IIE) in their publication Open Doors, there was a 43% increase in Chinese undergraduates coming to the US compared to a 15.6% increase in graduate students over the previous year. In numbers this means that in 2009/10 there were approximately 40,000 Chinese undergraduate students compared to 57,000 Chinese undergraduates in 2010/2011. The graduate student numbers were 66,453 to 76,830 respectively for the same years.

While the continued increase in international students led by China has a positive economic impact on US schools and communities; helps diversify US classrooms introducing our domestic students to different ways of thinking and viewing the world, it also creates challenges. This is becoming ever more apparent at the undergraduate levels.

Chinese and other international graduate students in the STEM disciplines often work as research or teaching assistants in their specific disciplines. While there may be communication challenges and schools may need to provide language and other support for some of these older students they generally adapt, contribute to research and are great additions to US universities.

The younger international undergraduate students however, are often finding themselves in a very different environment. For Chinese students who have gone through the traditional Chinese education system this is especially true. Most of the Chinese students are applying to top tier national liberal arts colleges and baccalaureate schools in the US. Accreditation standards for theses schools require students to take a mix of general education and discipline specific or “major” courses. More often than not the classroom experience involves interactive learning including group work and team projects, oral presentations, hands on problem solving, and a strong emphasis on communication and the development of critical thinking skills. It may be content rich but there is an emphasis on using that content in different, more interactive ways.

This is a far cry from the traditional Chinese classroom experience, which often puts the teacher on the stage (or small platform) in the front of the room. The teacher lectures to the students sitting in chairs that are lined up in rows. This method of teaching with a heavy emphasis on memorization seems to help Chinese students perform well on standardized testing including the SAT, ACT and written English language tests like the TOEFL exam. The end result is that a greater number of US liberal arts and other schools have been admitting students with great test scores but poor interactive learning skills. This, combined with challenges of language and culture shock, can cause Chinese and other international undergraduates to struggle both in and out of the classroom.

College administrations, especially those with little experience with hosting international students, are recognizing the need to provide the necessary resources including help for faculty, staff and domestic students to welcome this increased number of international students. For example there may be a need to expand international student support services such as staffing for immigration issues, English language support, advising and counseling. There may be dietary considerations, lodging and other student life issues. In short, the benefits of additional revenue and increased campus internationalization have their costs.

US colleges are adapting quickly to these challenges in a number of ways, both at the front end of the admissions process in China and on campus once they arrive. Many schools are now going to China to interview student applicants prior to acceptance. Others have started bridge programs to provide training for Chinese students in English language, American culture and American style education on-site in China or on their campuses prior to classes beginning. On campus, services are being expanded to ensure that the Chinese and other students can be successful both inside and outside of the classroom contributing to a richer more global campus experience for the whole community.

More students are on the way, the best colleges are adapting quickly. Provided the challenges are met in a timely manner the US-Chinese education connection should bring dividends to both sides for years to come.

Dr. James P. Cross is Associate Provost and Senior International Officer at Champlain College.

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