China U

China’s Hot New Luxury Product: the SAT

Wealthy Chinese students are ditching the country’s infamous college entrance exam and taking America’s standardized test instead.


NEW YORK — At his high school in Beijing, Steven Xiao was considered a bad apple. He laughs, now, when he recalls how his headmaster denounced him and warned his classmates at the Beijing No. 8 High School not to follow his lead. “I was rebellious,” he said. His offense? Taking the SAT, the American college entrance exam, and skipping out on China’s dreaded national college entrance test, commonly known as the gaokao. Talking over beers and roasted Brussels sprouts in an Upper East Side cocktail bar on a Friday evening, Xiao explained how back then, in 2007, it was almost unthinkable for a Chinese high school student to forgo the gaokao. But Xiao’s parents were open-minded and supported his dream of going abroad for college. He did well on the SAT and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Columbia University in New York City. Today he works in finance in midtown Manhattan.

China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

    Xiao didn’t know it at the time, but he was part of a new Chinese undergraduate vanguard. While figures aren’t made public, online test prep company ArborBridge estimates that some 55,000 Chinese took the SAT last year. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 9.42 million who sat for the multi-day test starting June 7, even adding in those Chinese who take Britain’s A-level exams. But it reflects an increasingly international view of education for Chinese young people, not to mention their parents. Whereas there was once only one path to higher education for most Chinese, now more young people have a choice.

    When Xiao arrived as a freshman in 2008, 868 Chinese students attended Columbia. Across the United States, there were 24,248 Chinese undergraduates. Fast forward to today: The latest statistics from Columbia show the Chinese student population at the school had swelled to 2,849 by the fall of 2013. Nationwide, as of 2014, there were 143,571 Chinese men and women pursuing bachelor’s degrees in the United States, according to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program under the Department of Homeland Security. That marks a 20-fold increase since 2005 when just 6,942 Chinese undergraduates were studying stateside. During the same time period, the numbers of Chinese master’s students in America increased six-fold to 130,748. Doctoral student numbers also grew, though much more modestly.

    Shiny Wang, director of college counseling at Beijing No. 4 High School’s international campus, traces the fever for study abroad among Chinese high school students to 2009, when College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement Program, established test centers in China for the Advanced Placement, or AP, test. (There are numerous AP tests, which are more specialized than the SAT.) Wang’s school, Beijing No. 4, established an international track in 2011 to “meet the needs of the kids who can’t balance gaokao and test-prep/overseas college study and excel in both,” he said via email. The new international track had 90 seniors the first year. This year, there are 150 seniors in the program, Wang said.

    But there is growing frustration over what some see as a class divide between those who pay can pay for the international track and those who go the traditional gaokao route. Across China there were 338 high schools with “international track” programs by the end of 2013, up from just 22 in 2001, according to Hu Wei, the deputy president of the Shanghai Academy of Educational Sciences, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of Education. Hu told Chinese state media that he was concerned about the “strong inclination” toward foreign tests and said he was submitting a proposal to the government that it clean up the “international track” system because it was “in disorder” and “lacked standards.” He also said these programs were drawing resources away from the main gaokao tracks at public schools. Though the programs bring in money, it appears the new income is being reinvested in the programs themselves, not the institutions that host them.

    International tracks are expensive, and a lack of regulations means it’s not always clear how the money they bring in is allocated. The Information Times, a daily paper in the southern city of Guangzhou, reported in February 2014 that overseas prep programs in the city cost up to $16,000 a year, 50 times the average tuition for local public schools. The article said it was unjust that some schools receiving state subsidies were also running separate fee-based programs and questioned how the money was being spent. Wang, from Beijing No. 4, said he is aware of some public frustration over the international tracks and said he expects there will be new rules that make a clearer separation in the administration of public gaokao prep systems and the lucrative international track programs. But there have been no formal announcements yet, he said.

    Luo Hongru, 18, graduated from the international program at the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University in Guangzhou in 2014. In September, he entered Columbia University, his first-choice U.S. school. Dressed in jeans, a black windbreaker, and green running shoes, Luo blends in seamlessly on campus. His father is a businessman and his mother works in the travel business so his family is, he said, “relatively well-to-do.” When Luo was 15, he said, his father encouraged him to consider going abroad for university because China’s educational system was “too tightly controlled” and lacked freedom of speech. Apart from a few weeks of trouble juggling an ambitious class schedule and trying to make sense of The Iliad, Luo seems to be adjusting with little problem. It helps that his roommate is from Beijing. They found each other via the popular Chinese messaging program WeChat through a chat group established by incoming Columbia students from China. They even met once in China before school started. For spring break, Luo flew down to Atlanta to visit friends at Emory University and took a tour of CNN’s headquarters. When he graduates, Luo says, he might try to be a journalist.

    Luo is typical of the new breed of Chinese student in America: younger, more affluent, and more fluent in English than their predecessors, having started with the language when they were younger. Because there has been such a huge influx of students, academic quality tends to vary more than in the past, when only the best students went abroad. The big constant today is that most new arrivals are at least middle class, and perhaps wealthier. Back in China, they are often referred to as “JY,” which stands for “jingying,” meaning elites. Other terms that are bandied about are “fu’erdai,” meaning second-generation rich, “guan’erdai,” meaning children of officials, and “tuhao,” or nouveau riche; these last three are pejorative.

    The world view of the new Chinese student has also apparently shifted. Henry Chiu Hail has surveyed the attitudes of Chinese students on American college campuses as part of his sociology research. He recently published a paper about the staunch strain of nationalism he observed among some U.S.-based Chinese students back in 2008. Hail found that his subjects felt threatened by American criticisms of China, which were spiking at that time due to unrest in Tibet and negative press reports about the Beijing Olympics, and that this criticism gave them a stronger sense of national identity. But the new generation of Chinese students, he said via telephone, is “less political” and “more cosmopolitan” than before. A growing number of Chinese students arrive as freshmen, Hail explained, whereas in the past most Chinese students in the United States were graduate students. As a result, new arrivals now tend to have an evolving sense of their national identity. “They really eschew political binaries, and binaries of East versus West; and they really want to innovate,” said Hail, a Ph.D candidate in the sociology department at University of California, Irvine. As for how Americans perceive their Chinese classmates, Hail says these days the latter are generally pigeonholed as “rich kids.” “There’s a strong impression among some American students that the Chinese students are all super wealthy,” Hail said. Some of his Chinese friends have complained that others think they “bought their way into school.”

    Put another way, the stereotype of the frugal and diligent Chinese exchange student with the perfect standardized test scores is vanishing. While schools are stepping up their vetting processes to make sure they are getting the best academic candidates from China, it’s also true that Chinese students are a boon for the bottom line of many U.S. schools. At state schools, international students pay more in tuition than local residents; at UC Irvine, for example, in-state undergraduates pay $14,576 and out-of-state students pay $37,454. (On top of that, international students also pay slightly higher application fees and health care fees.)

    Even small American schools remote from the most popular campuses on the east and west coasts are trying to get in on the action. Mark Severson, dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York has been to China six times in the last four years to hammer out dual degree programs with nine different Chinese schools, a program they call “3+2.” Students in the new program do three years of study at a university in China, then they come to Buffalo State for two years and finish with a dual bachelor’s and master’s degree. “Yes, they pay out of state tuition and that’s helpful to our revenue,” Severson said. But the main reason he’s interested in recruiting more Chinese students, he said, is because they “add to the strength of our programs and help to internationalize our campuses.” In 2009, Buffalo State had just 23 Chinese students on campus. In 2014, Chinese student numbers jumped to 73 out of a total of just 10,661 students. The Buffalo State 3+2 program has ten Chinese students, and Severson insists there’s a lot of room to grow. “We should be able to double it again, and again.”

    Back in New York City, at Columbia University, nearly 35 percent of the total international student body is Chinese, and Mandarin can be heard all over campus. Xiao, the Columbia grad who was among the first wave to skip the gaokao, marvels at the new influx of affluent Chinese students. They are only a few years younger, but he finds it hard to relate to them. He notes reports about how some undergraduates in the Midwest are buying Maseratis and BMWs. Xiao’s family is middle class, he said, and his parents put him through school by socking away their salary. He chose dorm life but the new generation, he says, doesn’t just rent apartments off-campus — some can even afford to buy.

    Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

    Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o