Is there an ROI for Chinese students studying abroad in the USA?

The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report has a lengthy article about Chinese studying abroad in the USA and struggling to generate returns from their expensive American education (Note: the original story appeared on The Wall Street Journal’s Chinese website under the headline “中国学生如何把美国文凭回报最大化“). The article began by noting there were 194,029 Chinese students studying in the US for the 2011-2012 academic year – accounting for 25.4% of all foreign students studying there for a 23% increase from the previous academic year and a 207% increase from a decade ago (according to data from the Institute of International Education). In addition, more than 60% of these Chinese study abroad students privately funded the cost of their education.

So just how much does it costs for a Chinese student to study in US and is it really worth the money? Consider the whole picture which includes the following costs:

  • English and other tutors.
  • TOEFL and SAT classes.
  • Flights to and from Hong Kong and Seoul to take the SAT (which isn’t administered in mainland China).
  • Flights to and from the US.
  • Tuition and other university fees for four years.
  • Living expenses (e.g. room and board etc.)

Bear in mind that tuition and other university related fees alone to study four years in the US can easily top $200,000.

Moreover, many Chinese study abroad students, who are used to rote memorization and heavy testing, struggle under the American liberal arts university system which emphasizes analytical and critical thinking. But that’s not the only problem Chinese students face as Jocelyn Jia, a 22-year-old communications major from Hainan who is studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the Wall Street Journal:

“I think [many Chinese students] are wasting their money. They spend a lot of money to come, but if you’re here to hang out with the Chinese in America, why don’t you just go back to study in China? Most international students study all the time and don’t go out, they think I’m too crazy and ask me, ‘Why do you go out every weekend? Why do you drink?’ But I study when I study and I have fun when I have fun. If you just come to study and only hang out with Chinese people, all you bring with you back to China is the diploma, it’s a piece of paper, that’s it.”

Ms. Jia added that her most rewarding takeaways from studying abroad in the US are the experiences she gained outside of the classroom where she learned to be more independent and acquired much stronger communication skills – soft skills many employers seek from graduates who return to China to become known as “hai gui” or “sea turtles.”

The Wall Street Journal also quoted a recent survey of Chinese abroad by a recruitment agency which found that:

  • Approximately 72% return to China after graduation or a few years of work.
  • More than 70% of employers say they won’t give preferential treatment to hai gui candidates.
  • Almost 8% say they actually prefer not to hire hai gui.

Reasons for not hiring “hai guis” included a mismatch in salary expectations and a lack of personal connections, or “guan xi,” compared to their Chinese-educated counterparts.

Finally, the article quoted the following estimates from Zinch China, a consulting group that advises American colleges, regarding university application materials:

  • 90% of recommendation letters are fake.
  • 70% of essays are written by someone else other than the applicant.
  • 50% of high school transcripts are manipulated.

Given the above estimates, employers may not also be somewhat skeptical of how “hai gui” ended up studying in America.

So is there really an ROI for Chinese students studying abroad in America? The answer probably depends upon the individual student and whether or not he or she chooses, like Ms. Jia, to get the most out of their expensive American education.

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