Millions of Chinese have dreamed of attending Harvard University. “Harvard Girl”, a how-to manual published in 2000 by the parents of one successful applicant, was a national bestseller. Georgia Institute of Technology, a prestigious university in Atlanta, has enjoyed less name recognition. Yet this is fast changing: the number of Chinese applicants to Georgia Tech has surged, from 33 in 2007 to 2,309 last year. Some applicants are from the best schools in China, and all are ready to pay around $44,000 (for yearly fees and housing costs)—the equivalent of nearly ten times the average annual disposable in- come of urban households.
The ambitions of Chinese students are shifting: no longer are they attracted just by the glittering names. Pursuit of education abroad is becoming an end in itself. Universities far less renowned than Georgia Tech are reaping the beneﬁts. More than 800,000 Chinese went abroad to study at all levels in 2012 and 2013. In those two years they made up more than a quarter of the 3m who had done so since China began opening to the outside world in 1978. At the end of 2013 nearly 1.1m Chinese were studying abroad, according to the Ministry of Education—more than three times as many as a decade earlier. China has long been the largest source of foreign students enrolled in higher education globally, with its share rising steeply. Since at least 2009 China has provided the most foreign students not just to the English-speaking countries of the developed world but also to numerous others including France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Japan and South Korea.
The boom in study in America is especially striking. More than 110,000 students from China were enrolled as undergraduates at American universities in the academic year of 2013-14, eleven times as many as in 2006-07. They now account for 30% of all foreign undergraduates. By comparison, the number of Chinese undergraduates in Britain less than doubled over the same period, to 35,000. The total number of Chinese in all types of higher education in America—274,000— was more than four times as many as in 2006-07, according to the New York-based Institute for International Education.
Several converging trends explain this. One is growing demand for education beyond the compulsory nine years. In 2011 nearly 25m Chinese were enrolled in senior secondary school (the level feeding into universities), more than twice as many as in 2000. Helped by a rapid increase in recent years in university places, the number of undergraduates has soared. But the quality of instruction is poor at all but a handful of universities, where a total of just a few thousand places are available each year. As well as its Ivy League colleges, America has dozens of high quality private universities and large colleges funded by states, such as Georgia Tech, which are world class.
Another trend is growing middle-class wealth: many more Chinese families can now aﬀord to send their children abroad. They prefer a well-rated university overseas to a second-tier option at home. Their choices are swayed by an educational system in China which many regard as too rigid and ideologically stiﬂing. The world has also become more welcoming: visas to study have become easier for Chinese to obtain in many developed countries, especially America.
American universities, keen to take on fee-paying Chinese students, have helped this by lobbying the government to issue more visas. They send teams to China’s best secondary schools to encourage applicants. Some American campuses have set up courses to help newcomers from China improve their English.
Families who know from early on that they want to send their children overseas can enroll them in private courses at publicly funded schools. The courses, costing as much as 100,000 yuan ($16,000) a year, prepare students for the entry exams used by American universities. Schools oﬀering them include elite ones such as Beijing No. 4 High School. The education authorities have murmured disapproval, but have not yet tried to ban them. Such programmes are aimed at an upper crust whose members they might be reluctant to annoy (President Xi Jinping’s daughter went to Harvard). Four out of ﬁve of China’s wealthiest people—those with assets worth more than 10m yuan—want to send theirchildren to study abroad, according to Hurun Report, a Shanghai-based ﬁrm.
The government, eager to nurture foreign-educated talent familiar with cutting- edge technology and Western ways of doing business, has reason to encourage the outﬂow. While the number heading overseas to study has been growing quickly, the number coming back has grown even faster; lured by good job prospects in a buoyant economy. More than 350,000 Chinese returned from overseas study in 2013, up from just 20,000 ten years earlier. They accounted for almost one-quarter of the 1.4m who had returned in total since 1978.
The growth rate in the numbers going abroad to study may prove diﬃcult to sustain at such high levels in the years ahead. The number of college-age Chinese has been shrinking since 2008, and will continue to do so until 2021, when there will be about 20m fewer people aged between 18 and 22 than now. President Xi’s anticorruption campaign has taken aim at Communist Party oﬃcials who send money and family members overseas.