EAST LANSING, MI – China's higher education system doesn't come close to meeting the needs of its fast-growing economy. That leads many students to leave the country to study.
Like many American colleges, Michigan State University has become a popular destination for Chinese students.
AUDIO: Every fall, foreign students are the first to arrive at Michigan State University. This year, as MSU officials planned orientation events for those students, a decision was made to move the annual welcoming dinner from the university's conference center to the massive Breslin Center basketball arena.
About 1,200 foreign students were there. Peter Briggs, Director of MSU's Office for International Students and Scholars, read off an alphabetical list of countries. Students from those countries were invited to stand. It was a rather sedate affair until Briggs got to the "C's".
"Our neighbor to the north, Canada. Chile. Now, are you ready? China!"
With that, about two-thirds of these foreign students stood.
Final enrollment numbers for this year aren't yet available, but undergraduate applications from China have exploded. Five years ago, there were 94. This year, more than 1,800 would-be students from China applied to attend MSU. The admissions office expects up to 6% of the freshman class to be from China.
Student applications from other countries cross the desk of Patty Croom, Associate Director of International Admissions at MSU. She says a recent report from the Institute for International Education placed MSU 15th in the nation in overall foreign enrollment, and in the middle of the Big Ten Conference. She says the university is highly engaged with China.
"China is an emerging economic powerhouse," Croom says, "and students are very likely to have interactions with China as they go out into the world. It also helps Chinese students understand us in the United States better, so I think it's a win-win situation."
The huge number of Chinese enrollees led MSU to hold a pre-departure orientation in another country for the first time ever this summer. Weijun Zhao, Director of MSU's Office of China Programs, says the event in Beijing had a big turnout.
"We had about 70 students come in," Zhao says, "and with about 50 parents. It's a very successful project, and both the parents and students feel very appreciated."
Zhao says there are three major factors behind the growth in students leaving China for college. The burgeoning Chinese economy means people have more money to spend on education, and the country's one-child policy means families only have to save to educate one child. Getting a study visa from the USA has been made easier in recent years. And, Zhao says, getting a good job in China is easier with a degree from another country.
Peter Briggs, the man you heard introduce the students from China at last week's dinner, says China's higher education capacity doesn't come close to meeting the country's needs.
"Only 18 percent of Chinese coming out of high school can get into Chinese universities," Briggs explains. "So, that leaves 82 percent of the people looking for universities. Australia is seeing big increases, Europe is seeing big increases, and the experience at MSU is no different. It might be a little on the higher side."
Briggs says MSU has never had to limit foreign enrollment, but the time may be coming.
"This is still a state of Michigan university," Briggs says, "and we're sensitive to that, and we want it both ways. We want to provide an education that's going to prepare people for the world and the global jobs, and everything that goes with it. But, on the other hand, it's a state taxpayer supported university, and we always have that first and foremost in our minds."
Money is a factor in this equation. Foreign students pay the highest tuition rates. Briggs says students from other countries attending colleges and universities across the state pour half-a-billion dollars into Michigan's economy.