Monday, November 26th, 2012...7:21 pm

Hey China, Haven’t Seen You for Two Years (Part 1. The Business of Studying Abroad)

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The last time I went back to China was more than two years ago — my mom was not happy about this, nor was my appetite for typical Chinese delicacies like steamed buns with soup, fried steam buns, durian puffs, sweet and sour fish, oh the list goes on and on.

This time, I went home with a suitcase full of vitamin supplements.

Not that China doesn’t sell GNC products, but “you never know if they are the real deal or condensed flour”, as my mom said. Her skepticism is well founded. After all, this is a nation with “gutter oil” found in medicineschromium in drug capsules, and cancer-causing toxins in baby formula, a nation where merchants have no moral code and consumers therefore have no trust in any product.

You may have read my blog post from last time, in which I described the major theme of my trip as “blind-dating”. This time however, it’s all about “studying abroad“.

I could write about how polluted Hangzhou has become, or how unsafe the new Hangzhou subway is going to be (which already collapsed once during construction) but persisted because of the government’s blind push for investment and big infrastructure projects. Yet I feel the wave of people, especially young Chinese, wracking their brains, using all resources and contacts, to study abroad ( in US, Europe or Australia), or to invest there, to buy property in the hope that one day their children would have a chance to study there is indicative of a number of major issues and trends in China. Please allow me to elaborate.

Even before I went back to China, I have received many emails and “friend requests” on Renren (a Chinese copycat of Facebook) from my high school alumni in China, children of my family friends’, and even complete strangers who came across my name somewhere online next to the magic words “Harvard University”. Their questions to me are always similar: “I want to go to Harvard, this is my background, what are my odds?” Yet it wasn’t until after I got back to China that I realized what kind of fever the country is in for studying abroad.


I’d like to make three observations:

  • First, studying abroad is an enormous and growing business for both Chinese nationals and for foreigners;
  • Second, the huge waves of young Chinese people going abroad is indicative of a variety of social issues that goes beyond simple dissatisfaction with the country’s education system;
  • Third, these “international” young people will eventually have an impact on China’s political future.


Part 1. The Business of Studying Abroad

Matthew was my “math-genius” classmate throughout elementary school, high school, and college. Graduated top of his class, he got into the Master’s program in mathematical finance at Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, he continued to be the type of student whose homework assignment was handed out to everyone as the correct answer sheet. That’s why he shocked everyone when he went back to our hometown after graduation and started teaching SAT and TOEFL at a company founded by one of our high school alumni.

He said the US finance industry in 2011 was extremely hard for a foreign graduate student to get into despite his Columbia pedigree. With his flawless English and Ivy background, he was so sought-after in his institution that during the summer, he was offering 286 classes per month! Needless to say, his salary was also commensurate to what he would have got as a freshman on Wall Street. His institution is doing so well now that they are expanding offices in North America in order to cater to the needs of foreign, especially Chinese students in US. So within a couple of years, Matthew is going to make a comeback to New York — not working for a US financial company, but leading a team of young ambitious Chinese to establish a New York division of this studying abroad service company.

Matthew is not the only one of my former classmates now in this business. In fact, two of my high school friends are now the Presidents of two different studying abroad test-prep companies, each using their strengths to compete for students. Beau, an American friend, started a company with his Chinese friend at Yale to provide one-on-one mentorship for Chinese students during the entire process of choosing American colleges/programs and applications. All of them are telling me the same things:

1. The demand is growing exponentially.

According to the Blue Book published by Social Science Academic Press (China), China sent 339,700 students overseas in 2011. The rate of increase in number of going abroad students is between 24-27% in the past four years. A conservative estimation of the studying abroad service business puts it at 60 billion RMB (US $9.55 billion) per year.

2. Younger and younger students are seeking to study abroad.

My friends’ client base has shifted from mainly Chinese college students seeking graduate programs to high school students hoping to go to college abroad, and the trend is it’s going even younger. In 2010, 19.8% of the students who went abroad were high school and/or below; in 2011, that percentage rose to 22.6%. During my trip this time, many parents asked me if I have contacts who can help them send their kids to American or British private schools. So if you are super connected with the secondary education system in US or UK, and want to have a business based on that, you would be in hot demand in China.

3. American schools are the most attractive to the Chinese students….

This is the reason why witnessing the dysfunction of the Congress in DC has not dispirited me about America. The US high education institutions continue to have tremendous attraction to international talents. Part of it, I believe, thanks to the wonderful American professors who take sabbaticals overseas. After the international students (Chinese, in this case) have experienced their passionate, substantive, charismatic, and unconventional (compared to their native teachers) teaching, they become hooked with the American high education system. Those professors are, for lack of better analogy, the traveling advertisements for American education.

Institute of International Education‘s Open Door Report shows that 194,029 Chinese students are studying abroad in US in 2011/2012 period, a 23% increase from the year before, while the number of Chinese students in Australia and UK are around 167,000 and 90,000.

4. … But the Chinese colleges repelled the students even more.

My elementary school teacher said there was no way her 16-year-old son could survive a Chinese college when the time came. “He’s so creative.” She said, “He’s curious about everything and loves to design experiments to test his ideas.” Her son was already suffering from the standardized tests in high school, and she was convinced that a Chinese college would kill the sparkle of creativity in him.

A high school alumna who went to the same college in Beijing as I did told me that she wanted to go to grad school in the US because she hasn’t “learned anything during the four years in college,” and that she had to “have some education“.

As for why the Chinese high education system, including gaokao (the college entrance exam), is turning away so many students, it touches upon bigger issues such as the corruption of (academic) integrity, lack of (academic) freedom, etc.

 5. More importantly, these overseas Chinese students are going back/ planning to go back to China.

Like my friend Matthew, and Beau’s Yale-educated Chinese business partner, many overseas Chinese students are going back to China for work. Partly due to the world economic down turn, the number of overseas students returning to China has reached 186,000 in 2011, maintaining a 31% increase in the number of returnees in the past two years. The reasoning for many Chinese who sought education abroad is that their foreign degree would prove to be useful when they go back to China. Holding a foreign degree is seen as a sign of “real education”, “being cultured, and worldly”. It is seen as a good credential to realize their ambitions in China. Their calculation of future opportunities and development is very interesting, and would have profound influence on the country’s political future.






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1 Comment

  • How entertaining! I thought I was the only person who was teaching TOEFL/SAT back home and brought a loaded suitcase of supplements back to China. Guess not!

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