Pan Wenbing was the first and only Chinese student at the University of Minnesota when he enrolled in 1914. He joined the soccer team, lived in Dinkytown and never moved back to China.
In 2011, Michael Wu left Nanjing, China, for the University and joined more than 2,200 Chinese students already here. He formed an intramural soccer team with other students in his dorm and said he never had a problem fitting in.
As Chinese students have enrolled in American universities in record numbers — frequently backed by family funding — American universities have stepped up recruitment efforts, promoting a relationship that benefits them financially while alleviating an over-burdened Chinese education system.
At the University of Minnesota, international students make up a growing portion of revenue, and Chinese students are quickly becoming the largest piece of that population.
In the 2011-12 academic year, the University raked in more than $110 million in tuition and fees from international students, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
International students rarely receive state or federal grants or financial aid, so the average international student pays a larger share of out-of-pocket tuition than the average American student.
Almost 64 percent of international students in the U.S. relied primarily on personal and family funds to pay for college in 2011-12, according to a study from the Institute of International Education, a non-profit training organization.
“There’s definitely a financial aspect to the growth in recruiting overseas,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor at the IIE.
Well-funded students from China are “very attractive” to state institutions, Blumenthal said.
Those schools have experienced a loss in state funding and can capitalize on international tuition rates. State funding for the University has declined 23 percent since 2008.
The University has added more than 1,000 Chinese students to its ranks since opening a Beijing recruiting office in 2009 — its only recruiting office outside the U.S.
This year, Chinese students make up more than 40 percent of the University’s international student body.
Barbara Kappler, assistant dean of International Student and Scholar Services, said she doesn’t think the University is recruiting international students to make up for a lack of state funding.
But, she said, “it’s completely fair to ask the question.”
In-state students down, international up
Rachelle Hernandez, associate vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions, said her office tries to reserve two-thirds of every freshman class for in-state students and 5 percent for international ones.
The University largely met those targets this year: Minnesotan students make up 65 percent of the freshman class, while international students make up about 5 percent.
But across the entire student body, in-state enrollment has declined over the last five years as international enrollment has increased.
Hernandez said the University has no target for overall international enrollment.
Minnesotan students made up 63 percent of the entire Twin Cities campus population in fall 2009. Now, they make up about 58 percent.
International students, on the other hand, rose from about 9 percent of the population to about 12 percent over the same period of time.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said he frequently hears from constituents who are concerned that the rise in international enrollment comes at a cost to American students.
“If you’re a parent and your student didn’t get into the U,” he said, “and you just saw that people from outside of the United States did, and you’re paying tax dollars to subsidize the U, what would you think?”
Rep. Zachary Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud, said the increased cost of higher education, not international competition, is driving Minnesotan students away from the University.
Dorholt said he thinks the University’s recent resident undergraduate tuition freeze is a step toward making college more affordable.
And a large international population at the University shows the school is working to become a global competitor, he said.
“In Minnesota, we don’t just talk about brainpower for the country,” Dorholt said. “We want to be brainpower for the entire world.”
In a Tuesday interview with the Minnesota Daily, University President Eric Kaler said higher international enrollment is good for the University because diversity adds to the educational experience.
“So, we are targeting some growth in national and international recruiting,” he said. “We won’t let that impact very much, if at all, the fraction of Minnesota students who come. We need to be the place for qualified Minnesota students, but I would like to see us get a little bit more geographically diverse out of the upper-Midwest.”
Explaining the increase
The surge in Chinese enrollment in recent years is not unique to the University. American universities added nearly 100,000 Chinese students to their classrooms between 2009 and 2012, and Chinese students now comprise about a quarter of all foreign students in the U.S., according to the IIE study.
Joe Potts, associate dean for international programs at Purdue University, said three factors have caused Chinese students to come to America in greater numbers than ever before: relaxed visa policies, limited space at Chinese universities and a growing Chinese middle class.
The fact that many Chinese families have only one child also makes it easier to funnel resources into an overseas education, which they consider to be worth the cost, Potts said.
“The U.S. is generally perceived by many people in China to have the best quality of higher education in the world,” said Wanling Qu, office coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Beijing recruiting office.
Chinese parents often encourage their children to study abroad, Qu said. Some see U.S. models of higher education as more focused on innovation and leadership than Chinese schools.
Because more students are applying to Chinese universities, the schools are struggling to keep up with the rising number of applications.
Every year, 9 to 10 million Chinese students take Gaokao, the nation’s college entrance exam, said Joan Brzezinski, executive director of the University’s China Center, which oversees the recruiting office. But those students are vying for about 6 million available spots.
“Right off the bat, near-50 percent of the students don’t gain entry into a Chinese college,” Brzezinski said.
Chinese students often consider other highly ranked schools worldwide if they fail to get into a top school in their home country, she said.
And many are drawn to large U.S. universities.
Eight Big Ten universities made the IIE’s 2011-12 list of the top 20 American schools with the highest international populations.
Of all Big Ten schools, nine of which provided a detailed breakdown of their international populations, Chinese students made up an average of almost 46 percent of their international students in 2012, or about 6 percent of the entire student body.
At the University of Minnesota, Chinese students made up a slightly lower percentage than the conference average.
“The reality, I think, across the country is that everyone is seeing increased enrollment from China,” Potts said.
Recruiting and rankings
Freshman Ruixin Bai said the University was her backup school.
She wasn’t set on attending until after she participated in a meet-and-greet event in Beijing with other prospective Carlson School of Management students.
While most Chinese students know of Ivy League schools, Bai said, many have never heard of the University.
In the last fiscal year, the recruiting office held events at 10 Chinese high schools, presenting to more than 500 prospective students.
More than 8,000 Chinese alumni have studied or worked at the University since 1914. The University currently operates alumni chapters in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
International rankings and the University’s Chinese alumni play a critical role in recruiting students, said Qu, who is also a CSOM alumna.
Like most of her Chinese counterparts, Bai said, rankings played a key role in her college search.
U.S. News and World Report ranked the University 104th of all colleges and universities worldwide in 2012. But the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities — which has an academic agreement with the University — ranked it 29th in the world that same year.
Qu said the agreement “in no way” affected the Shanghai ranking.
The Chinese obsession with rankings, Bai said, can be attributed to a culture of competition in education. For example, Chinese students take tests for middle and high school placement and can only take the Gaokao college entrance exam once.
“How they perform on those tests really determines their future from a very early age,” said Brzezinski, executive director of the China Center.
“There are very few second chances in China.”
Capitalizing on U.S.-educated students
Many Chinese businesses are eager to hire Chinese students with American degrees, further incentivizing an overseas education, said retired Chinese studies professor Edward Farmer.
Rachel Odell, a research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Chinese students with American degrees often fare better in their home job market than those who went to college in China.
American businesses also capitalize on the growing relationship between the two countries.
The University’s China Center offers to connect corporate donors with Chinese students, scholars and alumni.
Several Minnesota businesses, including Cargill, 3M, Best Buy and Medtronic, have donated time, resources or money to the center.
And the China Center’s Mingda Institute, created in 2001, brings Chinese professionals to the Twin Cities and helps them learn how American businesses operate.
In fiscal year 2013, the center spent $371,794 on Mingda Institute programs — nearly half of its total expenditures for the year.
A long history
The University of Minnesota has one of the longest-running institutional relationships with China of all American universities, and officials and faculty members have made 10 trips to China since 1979.
Shortly after the U.S. and China re-established diplomatic relations that year, the University began sending delegations to forge partnerships with Chinese universities.
This summer, President Kaler led an 11-day trip to the country, where he met with University alumni living in China and signed academic agreements with 10 schools there.
The agreements are intended to “establish cooperative academic relationships” between the University and institutions in Greater China. Based on funding and interest from the institutions involved, this could include student and faculty member exchanges and joint activities.
The University now has 33 partner schools in China, according to the China Center.
Some University departments are also working on or have formalized partnerships there.
In one of these partnerships, the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering hosted two students from a Chinese university over the summer to conduct research.
Currently, more than 2,700 visiting Chinese scholars and students are at the University — one of the largest populations on any American campus, Brzezinski said.
Jerry Zhao, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said the school is looking at creating joint programs at Nankai University in Tianjin and Renmin University of China in Beijing.
The hope, he said, is to introduce students from both countries to public policy they wouldn’t see at home.
“Those students, whether they go back to China or stay in the U.S., I think they will make big changes,” Zhao said.
Finance and risk management insurance and mathematics freshman Elaine Zhao said she felt more prepared than her American classmates when she came to the University.
“An upside of the cruel Chinese education system is that it really builds the foundation for you,” she said.
Zhao lived briefly in Louisiana as a child and returned to the U.S. halfway through high school. She said she then spent nights writing English words repeatedly to work on her vocabulary.
University freshman Bai said Chinese students sometimes hesitate to speak with Americans.
“It’s not that we don’t want to; it’s just hard with the language barrier,” she said.
Some Chinese families pay Americans to host their children during high school so the students can immerse themselves in the English language before going to college, said Farmer, the retired Chinese studies professor.
“Now, there is a big financial incentive in this country to welcome Chinese students,” he said.
The ‘new normal’
Odell, the Carnegie research analyst, said Chinese students will likely keep coming to the U.S. unless immigration policy in one or both countries changes drastically.
“I think it’s probably the new normal,” she said.
Blumenthal, from the IIE, said the current economic climate in the U.S. will also continue to make well-funded foreign students attractive to cash-strapped universities.
“These students who come with their own full funding are able to let the University use its own funds to provide more financial aid for U.S. students,” she said.
And though the Chinese higher education system is expanding, demand for quality education there will continue to outstrip supply, Blumenthal said.
“I don’t see Chinese student interest going away any time soon.”