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Chinese Students Flock to American Schools

Here at Via Meadia we have been closely following the slow and sometimes painful process of change in American higher education. Yet it’s worth keeping in mind that, despite all the turmoil, American schools remain the envy of the world, and America’s soft-power lure is still strong, especially in China. As the FT reports, the number of Chinese students enrolling in U.S. undergraduate schools increased by 43 percent in the past year, and these students come from increasingly diverse backgrounds that extend beyond the usual cultural and political elites.

This has been proceeding in fits and starts for over a century. The first Chinese students came to study in America 150 years ago; the flow was interrupted after the Japanese attacks, and then again after 1949, but it has slowly increased since then. Now it has reached a new and deeper stage—to the point that a stint in a U.S. university is almost a rite of passage for upwardly mobile Chinese.

This is a good thing, and over the last century and a half the presence of American-educated Chinese (including many who attended American-style universities and medical schools founded by American missionaries inside China) has been one of the driving forces in China’s long struggle to modernize.

For Americans, consumed as we increasingly are by the shortcomings of our university system and its failures to adapt, yet, to changing conditions, it is also worth remembering that many other countries today are trying to develop their own versions of the university system we already have. Our drive to reform and improve a system that is being copied all over the world is one of the signs that America’s day isn’t done.

Innovation, flexibility and reform made American education a beacon to generations of bright young Chinese. Those are still our strengths today.

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  • Rusty

    To WRM: your themes are remarkably similar to those of Gregg Easterbrook, intelligence based in reality. Thanks for your work – it is a valuable resource.

  • Anthony

    I walked along an attended a seminar at an elite law school Monday and noted the increase in Chinese students on campus – appearing quite diverse.

  • Luke Lea

    No doubt this is the best way to implant liberal values in the Chinese elites, which can only be applauded.

    Meanwhile I read that “the corrupt ones” back home (and there name is legion) are getting “naked” as they call it: ( ) Ie, moving there family members and their filthy lucre to the West for a quick getaway in case of trouble I suppose. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? I’d say a good thing.

  • Cato the Youngest

    Don’t get too excited about this: One of the reasons that Chinese students are enrolling in American universities is that Chinese universities simply don’t have enough spaces for the rapidly increasing number of applicants. A university degree is at least as essential to economic success in China as it is here, and many more families now have the wherewithal to allow their children to educate their way to more wealth. They have the demand, we have the supply; it’s not really more complicated than that.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Cato: although the fact that some of the Chinese students over here are the children of the most powerful people in the country should say something. It isn’t JUST a question of places.

  • Jim.

    Go Anteaters! ZOT!

  • Kenny

    God help us. When these Chinese see how ill prepared and how lazy many American students are, they’ll go home feeling they can walk all over us.

    Or will the reverse happen. Will our student corrupt the Chinese?

    Personally, I think the former will win out. It something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics — it is easier to decay something than to build it.

  • Joe

    Kenny’s got a bit of a point–the Chinese students at my university are a very insular bunch, often somewhat cocky, and with good reason. They are routinely at the top of the curve, particularly in mathematics and computer sciences. I find it ironic how we’re more-or-less at full-fledged cyberwar with China, and here is their next generation, learning the tools of the trade from American schools–and doing a much better job of learning than the natives are.

    It may illustrate just a bit that the problem isn’t always the American education system, but that blame may lie with my peers and me as well.

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