The Tenuous Relationship Between American Universities and Chinese Students

U.S. schools are welcoming more and more international students, but this trend has brought challenges.

Bo Guagua, son of fallen Chinese politician Bo Xilai, walks offstage after receiving his masters degree in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012.  (Brian Snyder / Reuters)
Updated on June 12, 2015: This article has been corrected to remove inaccurate information concerning disciplinary problems among Chinese students studying in the United States.
Chinese students have become a big market in the United States—and nobody understands this better than universities. Over 60 percent of Chinese students cover the full cost of an American university education themselves, effectively subsidizing the education of their American peers. Some schools—such as Purdue University in Indiana—profit further by charging additional fees for international students.*
But the symbiotic relationship between cash-strapped American schools and Chinese students is not without its problems. Demand for an overseas education has spawned a cottage industry of businesses in China that help students prepare their applications. The industry is poorly regulated and fraud is rampant. According to Zinch China, an educational consulting company, 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit fake recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts, and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive. And last month, federal prosecutors indicted 15 Chinese students for taking exams on others' behalf, or enlisting others to do so on their behalf, in order to obtain student visas.
“American universities are addicted to Chinese students,” Parke Muth, a Virginia-based education consultant with extensive experience in China, told me last year. “They're good test takers. They tend not to get into too much trouble. They're not party animals. The schools are getting a lot of money, and they, frankly, are not doing a lot in terms of orientation.”
According to the Institute of International Education, 274,439 students from China attended school in the United States in 2013-4, a 16 percent jump from the year before. Chinese students represent 31 percent of all international students in the country and contributed an estimated $22 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014.
In the past, Chinese students in the United States tended to be graduate students living on tight budgets. Now, many young Chinese are getting their undergraduate degrees overseas.  A large number of  these students come from China’s wealthiest and most powerful families—the daughter of President Xi Jinping, for example, studied under an assumed name at Harvard. The presence of wealthy Chinese students at American universities has even caught the attention of luxury brands eager to capitalize on them. Bergdorf Goodman, the New York City-based department store, sponsored Chinese New Year celebrations at NYU and Columbia, while Bloomingdales organized a fashion show for Chinese students at their shopping center in Chicago.
Is the relationship between Chinese students and American universities sustainable? The Chinese government has invested billions of dollars in improving its own tertiary education system in an attempt to persuade students to remain in the country.
“China is beefing up their labs, their research, while in the U.S. they've cut back,” said Muth. “At the grad level, students are staying in China because now they're starting to be able to compete.”
It's unclear how this will affect the total number of Chinese students studying in the U.S.—a number that's grown fivefold since 2000, according to Inside Higher Ed. But as American universities think more about helping Chinese students adjust, perhaps they'll also need to consider another possibility: that fewer of these students will come to their universities at all.

* This article originally stated that 8,000 Chinese students were expelled from American universities during the 2013-14 school year, based on statements made by Andrew Chen, the chief development officer of the educational-consulting company WholeRen. In fact, this claim is an estimate based on incomplete and proprietary information that may or may not accurately reflect national rates of expulsion. Additionally, the article stated that 80 percent of Chinese students expelled from American universities were removed due to cheating or failing. In fact, this figure was based on a survey of 1,657 students who used WholeRen’s consulting services and is not representative of the U.S. population. Of those students included in the survey, nearly 57 percent were threatened with dismissal or expulsion based on a low GPA or poor performance, 23 percent based on issues of academic integrity, and 10 percent based on attendance problems; the rest faced miscellaneous issues. We regret the errors.