A Surge in Graduate Students from China Brings Big Benefits

Chinese students are attracted to American universities, but what can be done to keep their skills in the country after graduation?

What is the Big Idea?

Bei Bei Bao sits in a leather armchair in the middle of the brightly lit foyer at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University where there is a constant hum of student chatter and hurried footsteps. Even at 9 o’clock at night, the room is lively and the camaraderie is a sharp contrast to the austere wood panel walls and plain frosted glass windows. The array of international flags hanging from the ceiling are as diverse as the nationalities these students represent.

Bao, 23, came from Beijing in the fall to start her dual graduate degree in international and public affairs and journalism. She is stylish but conservative in her leather jacket and pink scarf. Bao is lost in the text before her as she thumbs through her iPhone and contemplates the work she has to do for the night. Despite her warm smile and her cheerful demeanor, her first semester has been stressful so far.

“During my first month, I slept like five or six hours a night,” said Bao.

Sleep deprivation aside, Bao perseveres and studies hard she says. But she is not alone. The number of students coming from China to attend graduate school in the United States increased by 21 percent this fall, making this the sixth consecutive year of double-digit growth according to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools. Experts say this trend stems from a combination of China’s new wealthy middle class and students’ perception that the quality of an American education is superior to what they would get back home. This growth also means American graduate students are able to learn along side some of brightest students emerging from the world’s newest superpower, making this influx of immigrants a welcome trend for those on both sides of the Pacific.

But the benefits don’t end there. International students contributed more than $21 billion dollars in tuition and living expenses to the US economy, according to the 2011 Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education (IIE). This means they contribute money to the local economy, transportation, health insurance, room, board, books and supplies. New York state alone saw about $2.5 billion dollars of that total.

For Bao, money was not a factor in her decision to come to Columbia University. Both of her parents are state employees in Beijing who work in finance. They consider themselves wealthy and spared no expense for their only child’s education.

“My dad told me ‘Do whatever you want, you don’t need to worry about making money, I can support you for the rest of your life,’” said Bao. “From very young, I was free to pursue whatever I like.”

This freedom allowed Bao to choose the best education for herself and that meant leaving China to get it. Bao bemoans the graduate school system in China for failing to stimulate or challenge young people like her.

“The grad schools in China are garbage,” said Bao. “I see what my peers back home are doing every day and they’re either on Facebook or shopping.”

Bao is exceptionally serious for someone her age. She was offered scholarships to Stanford University and UC Berkeley but opted for Columbia University because she loves New York City. Bao wastes no time during her long days in school. When she is not in one of her five classes (and one audit class), she is studying either on campus at Butler Library or at her apartment on Riverside Drive. Bao’s only day off is Friday and she spends it doing yoga and pilates.

It’s no surprise that a student this diligent and studious finds China’s graduate schools boring.

“The way an American education is delivered is quite different than the way it’s delivered in China,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor at the IIE. “There is participation in class, stress on critical thinking and challenging perceived wisdom as opposed to just sitting there and writing down whatever the professor says.”

What’s the Significance?

The report by the Council of Graduate Schools doesn’t break down fields of study by country, but it says that 63 percent of all international graduate students in the US are enrolled in engineering, physical and earth sciences and business. Seventeen percent are enrolled in education, arts and humanities and other fields.

President Obama recently made a case for more engineers in the US. The supply will come from the pool of skilled immigrants and American educated foreigners, according to entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa. Fifty two percent of the technology companies in the Silicon Valley were started by foreigners.

“Increasing bodies of evidence show that skilled immigrants are fueling technological innovation and job growth in America,” said Wadhwa in a Businessweek article.

Keeping this new wealth of talent in the country, however, is difficult as China’s robust economy and US’ questionable immigration policies forces students to promptly return home after they graduate. Congress needs immigration legislation that “significantly stands to preserve America’s global competitiveness and provide an opportunity for the world’s best and brightest to play for our team, rather than pack up and go home” argues Wadhwa. China’s economy is getting an unintended boost when American educated scientists and engineers take their skills back home.

Economist Nick Schulz echoes this idea when he said that there is “wide consensus among those who have studied the issue that skilled immigrants are a net positive for the receiving country.”

Bao plans to return to China after she graduates. Her parents wanted her to go into business, but she wants to be a journalist. Business journalism is her way of compromising. She took a year off from college at Peking University to work as a research assistant at the Shanghai bureau of The New York Times. This kind of life experience and talent enhances classroom time for both American and Chinese students.

“Classrooms are being enriched with the perspectives and participation of students from China,” said Blumenthal. “And American students who might never visit China now have the chance to work with, room with and be lab partners with students from China.”

Not all the changes are necessarily beneficial. The recent surge in undergraduate students coming from China has been met with resistance. Critics of the trend say college recruiters are poaching unqualified students from China with poor English skills.

Graduate students are different in that they sometimes have the support of assistantships if they’re studying science and engineering or company funding if they’re getting an MBA, according to Blumenthal. So they are better qualified for graduate school than undergraduate candidates who mostly have the support of wealthy parents that pay top dollars for agents who help their kids with everything from applications to writing entrance essays.

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