A few months ago, I met a young man I'll call Tom. He was born in China and came here at age 18 to enroll in a large private university in Washington, D.C. American colleges are filling up with people like Tom. This reflects the rising economic power of China, the globalization of everything, and the disturbing tendency of colleges to balance their budgets with whatever easy money they can find.
When Tom's parents reached college age, China was in the first throes of the Cultural Revolution. By the time it ended, in 1976, they were in their late 20s. So when they applied for slots at what is now Central University of Finance and Economics, in 1978, they were entering the first new college class in over a decade. Getting in was difficult in the best of times, and Tom's parents were competing against half a generation of students all at once. It was probably the most competitive college entrance tournament in human history, and they were among the tiny fraction who won.
After graduation both parents became part of the vast complex of government-controlled capitalism unleashed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. Tom, their only child, was born in 1992.
For the first 10 years of Tom's life, his father worked in Hong Kong and Macau on projects like the construction of the Hong Kong airport, returning home only once or twice a year. Tom stayed at school during the week and made the 40-minute commute home on Friday nights. He became interested in international affairs, but the program he had his eye on admitted only seven students from Beijing per year, and it was unlikely he would be able to beat the odds as his parents had. So he set his sights on American colleges.
He wasn't alone. In 2007, the U.S. State Department issued roughly 40,000 F-1 student visas to residents of mainland China. (Visa numbers may not correspond exactly with enrollments, but can be a useful measure.) By comparison, 46,000 visas were issued to students from South Korea that year, 34,000 to India, 22,000 to Japan, and 15,000 to Taiwan.
Five years later, visas for South Korean, Indian, Japanese, and Taiwanese students had all declined. Chinese students visas, meanwhile, quadrupled, to 189,000 in 2012, more than the total number issued to students from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Oceania combined.
What's driving these numbers? Money. The Chinese ruling class has more of it, and American colleges have less: 2007 to 2012 saw the Great Recession and its aftermath, and state appropriations along with family income shrank even as colleges were unable or unwilling to cut costs. So when the "full-pay" foreign student appeared like an answered prayer, colleges opened their doors wide. Tom's parents pay every cent of his university's published tuition, over $50,000 per year. And if anyone asks why so many Chinese students are suddenly on campuses, it is easy enough to point to phrases like "global leadership" in some mission statement while talking up the virtues of student diversity.
This, of course, raises the pesky question of academic standards—or it would, if colleges objectively and publicly measured how much their students learn. Since they don't, nobody really knows if these Chinese students, or anyone else on campus, are benefiting from their very expensive education.
And there are reasons to believe colleges are ignoring unsavory parts of the system. Although he says he didn't use one, Tom knows many people who hired private services to help them with American college admissions. He told me services range from navigating deadlines to applying for scholarships and editing the personal essay.
For 100,000 yuan ($16,000), you can pay a company to write the essay for you, craft teacher recommendations that you simply ask a teacher to sign, fill out all of your applications, and more. The only thing you do yourself is take the SAT and a test of English fluency. Tom says he has a friend from high school, now at a large research university in Pennsylvania, who has no idea how many colleges he actually applied to. The company just gave him a list of the places where he had been accepted, from which he could choose.
While Tom was making up his mind about where to enroll, a private East Coast university invited him and all of the other local students it had accepted to a formal reception held at a private club in the penthouse of a Beijing office building. Membership in the club costs half a million yuan per year. At the reception, Tom said, Chinese and American alumni told the assembled students that if they enrolled, they too could belong to a private club like this someday.
So, are Chinese families getting their money's worth? It depends on whether colleges invest time and resources to truly integrate their new full-pay students into the academic community. At Purdue University, where the Chinese undergraduate population grew from 127 to 2,755 over the last five years, a student told a reporter that one of the main benefits of going to college in America was "learning to speak better Chinese," according to a recent Washington Monthly article. He had spent four years in dorms with fellow Chinese students and rarely interacted with Americans. But many of his roommates were from different Chinese provinces, so his knowledge of regional dialects improved.
Admissions is also a zero-sum game. As institutions that still receive millions of public dollars in the form of direct subsidies, tax preferences, and student aid increase foreign-student enrollment, fewer spots are available for those whose taxes support colleges and universities and built them in the first place.
Tom wants to stay in America and possibly attend graduate school. He's learning Spanish, which, along with fluent English and Mandarin, he hopes will make him attractive on the job market. His father still holds with what Tom calls the "Chinese filial piety thing" and thinks his $200,000 tuition investment should pay off in the form of Tom coming home and supporting him in his retirement. But Tom's mother wants him to pursue his destiny, in America if need be. When Tom mentioned that his father is always pushing him to fly home during school breaks and not worry about the cost of another international plane ticket, I got the sense that his father really just misses the single son he only got to see on weekends for a handful of years.
You can't blame parents for sending their children to the best institution they can afford. The budget problems at some colleges are very real. But grabbing the quick fix of rich foreign families just lets the structural problems undergirding the higher-education economy get even worse. And turning a blind eye to recruitment abuses is sure to come back and haunt colleges that think they're getting free money today.