Definitive Study of College-Bound
Students in China
Many Plan to Attend College in the U.S.,
but Find the American College Admissions
Process Confusing and Complicated [top]
In this premiere issue of studentPOLL China, we are pleased to report the findings of what we believe is the first definitive study of the attitudes of high school students in China.
Yet before discussing the findings, it is worth noting that most college or university presidents and senior enrollment officers are well aware that there is no shortage of self-appointed experts who profess great insights about the rapidly expanding market of high school students in the People’s Republic of China who have the academic and financial wherewithal to qualify for undergraduate study in the United States.
Having visited scores of high schools in China, met with their principals and teachers, engaged in lengthy discussions with Chinese students and parents about education in the U.S., and visited with senior policy makers in the Ministry of Education and other key government bodies concerned with educational policy, I’m not sure understanding and tapping into the Chinese market is so easy. Admissions officers concerned about whether applications from China are the students’ own work or that of their well-compensated agents may very well feel the same way.
So as an initial first step toward understanding the Chinese market from the perspective of Chinese students themselves, we decided to expand the research focus of studentPOLL — a national survey we publish that explores factors influencing the college choice process among college-bound high school students — from the United States to China. It would be an understatement to say that survey research with Chinese high school students presented some very complex challenges. These are outlined in the study methodology section of this report.
Methodological challenges notwithstanding, this premiere issue of studentPOLL China, to the best of our knowledge, represents one of the first definitive research studies conducted with college-bound high school students in the PRC. Completed in fall 2011, this study explores Chinese students’ interest in attending college in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries and other factors influencing their plans to attend college in the United States.
About a year and a half ago, I met in Beijing with the senior policy maker in the Ministry of Education responsible for education reform in Chinese high schools. While the conversation was far-ranging, it was made very clear that while China’s national education system has long-practiced a pedagogic approach based on memorization and didacticism, a new day is dawning: national educational reform underway in China places much greater emphasis on the development of critical thinking, creativity and innovation, and problem-solving abilities. This may, in part, explain why the findings of this study appear to signal an intellectual awakening on the part of Chinese students themselves, who prize these benefits of American higher education above all others.
Among the most salient findings of the research:
- American higher education is perceived as the best in the world and a high proportion of students have considered or plan to attend college in the United States.
- Students believe American higher education will give them the edge in gaining critical thinking and problem-solving skills and intellectual creativity — keys to success in all fields.
- Insufficient academic preparation, lack of knowledge about American colleges and universities and English language proficiency are seen by students as the major hurdles in their quest to attend a U.S. college or university.
- Not unlike their American high school peers, Chinese students are very self-directed and motivated in their U.S. college search and say their parents have limited participation or influence in the activities and process.
- While a majority of these students have not used agents, a significant proportion believe agents would improve their chances of admission and help them write and complete applications to make them look better to American institutions.
- Students in China view the college admissions process in the U.S. as highly confusing (one of the reasons interest in agents remains pervasive in China) — a critical finding that is echoed in other results of the study.
Overall, these key findings provide timely and compelling evidence that despite inroads made by American higher education in recruiting, enrolling, and educating students from China, much more needs to be done to: educate these students and their families about American higher education; simplify and demystify the application process and provide appropriate assistance as needed; create opportunities for students to participate in programs that expose them to college campuses and American culture; and put in place bridge programs and other initiatives that help strengthen students’ English language proficiency and build their self confidence about living and studying in the United States. The evidence also suggests that the simplification and demystification of the application process would do much to reduce the influence of agents, especially those who corrupt the application process.
Study Findings [top]
1. Preference for study in the USA is overwhelmingly preferred over other English-speaking countries.
studentPOLL China sought to understand the extent to which students had considered attending college in an English-speaking country. Among students surveyed, an overwhelming 94% reported that they had considered attending a college or university in an English-speaking country.
We asked the 647 students who responded affirmatively to indicate all the specific English-speaking countries where they had thought about attending college. More than three-quarters (78%) indicated they had considered attending college in the United States compared to 24% who had considered England / Great Britain, 22% Canada, and 21% Australia.
2. Chinese students view U.S. higher education as the best in the world.
To understand how Chinese students viewed American higher education compared to its counterparts in Great Britain and Canada, we asked students to rate different aspects of higher education in the United States and these other countries on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best and 1 the worst in the world.
On a statistically significant basis, Chinese students gave American higher education a higher rating compared to its counterparts in Great Britain and Canada on these factors:
- Overall academic quality
- Teaching critical thinking, problem solving, and intellectual creativity
- Quality of facilities
On the beauty of its campuses, England / Great Britain and Canada were given slightly higher ratings than U.S. colleges and all three countries were rated virtually the same on “personal attention given to students,” and “emphasis on the liberal arts.”
This inability on the part of Chinese students to distinguish between institutions of higher education in these three countries seems largely due to the fact that their knowledge or awareness of these differences is limited or superficial. In terms of having colleges that provide a “friendly setting for Chinese students where they feel welcome,” Canada was rated slightly higher than the U.S. and England/Great Britain. These findings certainly suggest shortcomings in the understanding of American higher education that the communications of colleges and universities might address.
Another finding worth noting: students in China believe they have much stronger perceptions or working knowledge of U.S. higher education. For example, only 1% - 4% of respondents answered “Don’t Know” when asked to rate different qualities of American higher education, compared to 27% - 29% who answered “Don’t Know” when rating higher education qualities in England/Great Britain and Canada.
3. Gaining critical thinking and problem solving skills and attending the best colleges in the world are the leading reasons students want to attend college in America.
We asked students to indicate the primary reasons they were interested in attending college in the United States, accepting multiple answers. Nearly half to over three-quarters of students gave these as their top reasons:
- I think the United States has the best colleges and universities in the world (76%)
- I want to learn the skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and intellectual creativity important to success in all fields today (69%)
- There are more opportunities to study in my field of interest (64%)
- Students have the freedom to choose what they want to study (58%)
- It will help me get a good job and make more money (56%)
- I will have more opportunities in the United States (47%)
While China’s national education system has long-practiced a pedagogic approach based on memorization and didacticism, a new day is dawning. Currently, national educational reform in China places much greater emphasis on the development of critical thinking and problem solving abilities. This may, in part, explain why the findings of this study appear to signal an intellectual awakening on the part of students who increasingly recognize the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, and intellectual creativity to their future success. However, it is unclear how widespread this recognition is among Chinese students attending schools focused on preparing them for higher education in China.
For example, after we asked students to indicate the multiple reasons why they had considered attending college in the United States, we then asked them to select the single most important reason they wanted to do so. Once again, the largest proportion of students (19%) indicated that learning critical thinking, problem solving, and intellectual creativity as a way to ensure their future success fueled their interest in attending college in the U.S., followed closely by their desire to attend the best colleges and universities in the world (18% of students).
4. Students view academic preparation, lack of knowledge about American higher education, and English language proficiency as major hurdles to study in the U.S.
We wanted to get a better sense of what Chinese high school students viewed as the major challenges or problems that would make it difficult for them to attend college in the United States. Multiple responses were accepted. Of those respondents considering study in the United States, 45% reported that “I don’t know if I’m academically prepared to study in the United States.” One quarter to one-third of students considered these concerns to be major challenges to future study in the America:
- I don’t know very much about American colleges and universities (37%)
- I don’t understand or speak English very well (28%)
- I’m worried about being so far away from home (25%)
We then asked these students to indicate the single greatest challenge or problem that they thought would make it difficult to attend college in the United States. Surprisingly, particularly given the nature of the academic rigor and international curriculum of these schools that largely focus on preparing students for study abroad, one-fifth of students indicated that “I don’t know if I’m academically prepared to study in the U.S.” This also seems to suggest that if students attending these schools lack confidence about their academic readiness for study in the United States, then perhaps students attending other public schools in China may be even less confident about whether they are academically prepared to attend college in the United States. This may also be related to their English speaking and writing abilities and the extent to which it undermines their overall sense of being academically prepared for college in the U.S.
5. For many Chinese students, interest in study in the U.S. is self motivated, with little reported influence on the part of their parents.
Given conventional wisdom about the importance of parents in the college decision-making process in China, we wanted to explore the level of influence Chinese parents exert in their son’s or daughter’s interest in attending college in the United States.
Surprisingly, more than half of the students surveyed indicated that their interest in attending college in the U.S. is either completely or mostly their own (56%). Another 35% indicated it was an equally shared interest/decision and only 6% indicated that it was mostly or completely their parents’ interest/decision. To some extent, this may again reflect the fact that many of the students surveyed are attending schools where a high percentage of students are seriously considering attending college abroad.
We also asked students when they first started thinking about the possibility of attending college in the United States. Evidently, many began considering study in the United States earlier in their secondary education: One-fifth reported three to five years ago, 26% reported two years ago; 28% in the last year; and 12% in the last several months.
In order to gauge the importance of different activities and events aimed at helping Chinese students explore colleges in the United States, studentPOLL China gave respondents a list of various activities and events and asked them to check whether they, their parents, both of them, or neither of them had taken advantage of these opportunities. In general, students’ largely had participated in most of these activities on their own including:
- Visited the web site of colleges that you or your parents are interested in (62% alone, 12% parents, and 1% both parents and students)
- Obtained materials or information from your high school about studying in the U.S. (48% alone, 15% parents, and 2% both parents and students)
- Requested information from specific colleges in the United States (36% alone, 15% parents, and 1% both parents and students)
- Attended a college fair with people representing different colleges or universities in the United States (25% alone, 10% parents, and 0% both parents and students)
- Traveled to the U.S. to visit colleges you’re interested in (25% alone, 10% parents, and 0% both parents and students)
The only activity students checked in which parents had a higher level of participation than students was “used an agent paid by your family to help you get into college in the U.S.” Only 19% of students indicated this was an activity their parents had done and 14% indicated it was something they did alone. On the other hand, 52% checked that neither they nor their parents had used an agent and 15% checked “Don’t Know.”
6. A small segment of students and families actually used an agent, but a majority considered using an agent, viewing the U.S. college admissions process as confusing and agents valuable in simplifying the process and influencing the outcome.
Given recent media attention about the questionable and often unethical practices of agents in China hired by families to get their child into an American college or university, studentPOLL China explored the extent to which families and students are using agents and the primary reasons why they either considered or actually hired an agent to help get their son or daughter into an American college or university.
In the survey, we described agents as “…firms or individuals who Chinese families pay to help them get their children into college in the United States.” Among the 506 respondents who indicated an interest in attending college in the U.S., 26% reported using an agent; 57% did not; and 17% didn’t know whether their parents had used an agent.
Among those who responded that they or their families had not used an agent (366 respondents), we then asked them whether they had ever considered using an agent: 40% answered affirmatively, 35% no, and 25% reported that they did not know whether their family had used an agent.
If respondents indicated that they or their families had either used or considered using an agent (201 respondents), we asked them to check all the reasons why they had decided to do so. One-third to two-thirds of students checked these reasons:
- Applying to American colleges is very confusing and agents make it simpler (66%)
- Agents have influence at American colleges and universities that will improve my chances of admission (44%)
- My chances of getting a scholarship will be much higher (34%)
- Agents will help write my essays, fill out the application, and make my application look much better to American colleges (31%)
A smaller segment of students checked these reasons for considering or using agents:
- There is no other place to turn for help if you want to apply to an American college or university (15%)
- You must pay for influence to be admitted to an American college or University (13%)
As a follow-up question, we asked students to indicate, among the reasons they checked, the single most important reason they or their families had considered or used an agent. Some 44% answered “Don’t Know” while the top response among 26% of students was “Applying to American colleges is very confusing and agents make it simpler.” Another 11% checked the most important reason as “Agents have influence at American colleges and universities that will improve my chances of success” and 10% checked “Agents will help write my essays, fill out the application, and make my application look much better to American colleges.”
College counseling is much more prevalent in the schools where the students surveyed are enrolled; if we had surveyed students from a typical public high schools, in all likelihood, the proportion of students and their families using or considering using agents probably would have been even higher. The prevailing belief among far too many Chinese students and families is that paid agents can influence the admissions decision remains alarming. More to the point, institutions concerned about the insidious role of agents in China should take these findings to heart.
7. Improving their ability to write and speak in English and providing more information about colleges and life in America rank high among the kinds of help students believe would make it easier to learn about and study in the U.S.
In an attempt to understand how high schools could make it easier for students to learn about and attend college in the United States, studentPOLL China gave students a list of the kinds of assistance their high schools might provide and asked them to rate the importance of each.
About half of the students surveyed rated the following kinds of help their high schools might provide as very important:
- Help me improve my ability to speak and write in English (54%)
- Help me prepare for or take the IELTS, TOEFL, and SAT or tests required for admission (53%)
- Provide more information about colleges and universities in the U.S. (49%)
- Provide more information about what it is like living and studying in the U.S. (47%)
In keeping with other findings of the study, a strong segment of students also wanted more assistance in writing essays, filling out applications, exploring scholarships and other ways to finance college, and applying to college without using agents.
8. Developing critical thinking and problem solving skills and successful outcomes are qualities of a liberal arts education most appealing to students.
It may be the case that small liberal arts colleges are a tougher sell to students in China who often do not understand the value and substantive nature of a liberal arts education compared to comprehensive research universities that offer a greater depth and breadth of pre-professional and career-directed programs.
In this survey, we sought to understand what Chinese students associated with a liberal arts education. So we gave them a series of statements about a liberal arts education and asked them to rate each statement on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 meaning the education is “the best for you” and 1 meaning it is “the worst for you.”
Similar to other key findings in this study, students rated critical thinking, problem solving, and intellectual creativity as elements of a liberal arts education they highly valued and viewed as “the best” for them. Specifically, respondents gave the highest mean ratings to these statements about a liberal arts education:
- Prepares you to think critically, solve problems, and communicate creatively and effectively throughout your life (9.0)
- Teaches you how to think critically and creatively (8.9)
- Offers you a broad-based education in which to study a variety of different subjects to gain a better knowledge of the world around you (8.8)
Other high ratings — above 8.0 — related to the outcomes a liberal arts education can provide students, including:
- Provides you the most effective preparation for graduate school (8.6)
- Has a higher percentage of graduates who go on to become leading scientists, physicians, lawyers, and other professionals in their fields (8.2)
- Has a higher percentage of graduates who go on to graduate or professional school (8.2)
The lowest rating — meaning students are less likely to view the education as best for them — related to a liberal arts education being “only offered at small colleges in the U.S.” which received a mean rating of 6.6.
Perhaps one of the most valuable implications smaller liberal arts colleges can take away from these findings is that to overcome any negative perceptions Chinese students might have about attending a small liberal arts college, more emphasis needs to be placed on outcomes. Liberal arts colleges should emphasize their successful outcomes such as professional and graduate school placement, percentage and prominence of leading graduates in business, science, and other fields, and other outcome metrics that reinforce the life-long value of liberal arts colleges in preparing their graduates for both professional and personal success in their communities and around the world.
Other Demographic Information About Study Participants
- Gender: 47% male, 50% female, 3% don’t know
- Attend a school with an international curriculum: Yes (86%); No (12%); Don’t Know (3%)
- Has someone in the family who has attended college in the United States: Yes (28%); No (70%); and Don’t Know (2%)
- Have relatives or friends who are studying or living in the United States: Yes (62%); No (36%) and Don’t Know (2%)
- Have visited the United States: Yes (30%); No (68%); and Don’t Know (2%)
- Plan to take the Gaokao (China’s national entrance exam for college): Yes (18%); No (79%); and Don’t Know (3%)
- Intended Major (of the 53% who indicated a major or majors he or she plans to pursue in college):
- Business 42% (includes all related fields of business)
- The Arts 12%
- Natural Sciences 12%
- Humanities 8%
- Social Sciences 8%
- Education 5%
- Engineering 4%
- Math 2%
- Other majors 7%
Study Methodology [top]
The findings reported in this premiere issue of studentPOLL China are based on 672 respondents from a sample of students who completed a paper survey administered in their high school in September and October 2011. These students attend seven national high schools located in major cities in China. Of the 672 respondents who participated in the survey, 647 of these were thinking about attending a college or university in an English-speaking country and 506 respondents have considered or would like to attend college in the United States.
At the outset, it is important to understand that conducting research of this kind in China is extremely difficult because there is no commercial sample of names available such as SAT or ACT test takers, or other lists that can be purchased to reach and conduct market research with these students. There are no standard research practices that can be easily adapted to the population of high school students in China. The only practical approach available was to survey students at schools where teachers, principals, and students are focused on preparation for study in the U.S. and other countries — and this is exactly what we did.
studentPOLL China chose to focus on high schools across China that offer an international curriculum (e.g., Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or a Cambridge A-Level curriculum). These schools, in general, enroll a higher percentage of students who plan to attend college abroad. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of these students also do not intend to take China’s national university entrance exam — the Gaokao — which is required for admission to China’s universities.
Given these characteristics, many of the findings in this issue of studentPOLL China reflect students’ predisposition towards study in the United States and other English-speaking countries. On the other hand, as these schools represent very fertile recruiting ground for American higher education, the findings are especially salient for American colleges and universities.
About Art & Science Group [top]
Art & Science Group is one of the nation’s most influential consulting firms specializing in market-related issues facing higher education and the nonprofit sector. The firm’s work synthesizes imagination and empirical rigor — art and science. Its research is considered the most rigorous and innovative in higher education today. The firm assists clients in every major arena of marketing and communications: market-informed strategic planning; enrollment management and student recruitment; development and alumni relations; tuition pricing and financial aid. The firm has extensive experience working with a large variety of public and private institutions of higher learning, ranging from comprehensive private and public research universities to small liberal arts colleges. Art & Science, in collaboration with the College Board, publishes studentPOLL. Since its first publication in 1995, studentPOLL has become a trusted and widely-cited source of reliable data and insights on many critical questions concerning factors influencing high school students’ college choice.
About CNA-USA and studentPOLL China [top]
Established in 2009, the China America University-School Alliance — CNA-USA — is a coalition of outstanding Chinese public and private high schools, leading Chinese universities, and U.S. colleges and universities dedicated to helping talented Chinese students apply to and enroll at member institutions in the United States. CNA-USA also provides its member American colleges and universities enhanced access to qualified students from China, among other benefits. CNA-USA’s strong relationships with principals and teachers in member high schools in China made it possible for studentPOLL China to directly survey high school students and publish the findings in this inaugural issue.