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‘The China Conundrum,’ Take 2

Denver—Is there a “China Conundrum” backlash?

That was the headline of an article I wrote with my colleague, Tom Bartlett, published in The Chronicle and The New York Times. It told the story of the shortcuts and sometimes outright fraudulent behavior engaged in by Chinese students seeking to study in the United States and of how American colleges appeared too often to be in the dark about recruiting in that country. The phrase seems to have become shorthand for the confusion and anxiety over recruiting in China—indeed, a preconference session at the annual meeting here of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling even adopted the title.

But these last few days in Denver, I’ve noticed an undercurrent of admissions officers concerned that all the talk of unethical application practices in China has unfairly tarred the reputations of some very good students from that country who want to study in the United States.

“Can’t you write some positive stories?,” one admissions director at a prominent American university asked me. Another conference-goer, a college counselor in China, talked about the “stereotypes, some accurate, many not,” that exist about Chinese students seeking to study abroad.

Megan Wang, an associate director of admission at the University of Southern California, recruits heavily in China. “We have a load of applicants,” she says, “and, yes, there are bad apples. But we need to have a little more faith in these students.”

Ms. Wang says she is seeing a marked improvement in the quality of Chinese applications. Prospective students there know that some of their predecessors “did not represent them well,” she says, and a number of them are eager to change that perception. This year she received some applications from China with homemade pledges attached, attesting that the students had completed the paperwork themselves without the help of one of the many paid recruitment agents in that country.

Despite Ms. Wang’s optimism, one of the most heavily attended sessions during the conference, with participants sitting in the aisles of a small auditorium, was one entitled, “How to Make Confident Decisions About Chinese Applicants.” The conclusion seemed to be: Often, you can’t.

A speaker at that session, F. David McCauley, deputy director of college counseling at Beijing National Day School, told the group that many of American admissions officers’ fears about Chinese applicants are founded. Students sometimes skip classes for months at a time during their senior year to cram for exams, he says, even boarding at test-prep centers. Recently, he got a call from a top American university about a supposed student of his who had applied there. The student had never attended Beijing National Day School.

One of the newest strategies, Mr. McCauley says, is for students in Japan who have taken English-proficiency exams to call counterparts in China to fill them in on the test questions.

Of fraudulent practices, “what you hear about, you can believe,” Mr. McCauley says.

Marianne Brandt, Mr. McCauley’s counterpart at Shenzhen Middle School, a high school in southern China, said an American college had sent her a transcript from one of her students after it raised red flags. Fifty of 80 grades on the document had been faked by a recruitment agent hired by the student’s family. So, too, were the recommendation letters.

Another Chinese-based counselor told me that although one might think that mounting concern among American colleges would harm the reputation of agents, some agents were using it to their advantage. For example, one agent told parents that the suspicions of American colleges were precisely why they needed to hire him—he could guarantee that he could get students’ applications through admissions scrutiny.

Mr. McCauley has persuaded about a dozen high schools, mainly in Beijing, to agree to  abide by certain practices in college counseling to try to undercut the problematic activity, such as providing unaltered transcripts directly to overseas universities. But, he notes, few high schools have in-house guidance counselors, leaving many students to turn to outside agents. “We’ve got a broomstick,” he says, “to fight off an army of samurai.”

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