Why there’s a boom in Chinese students attending US universities

“Sea turtles” attend top US universities like Harvard
“Sea turtles” attend top US universities like Harvard
Image: AP Photo / Elise Amendola
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Almost 200,000 Chinese students joined North American universities in the last academic year, an increase of 23% from the previous year according to the Institute of International Education, a US nonprofit.

The Chinese call them “sea turtles,” the lucky few who go abroad—the US often being their first choice—for education, and then return home with better English and a broader cultural perspective to get good jobs with Western companies. (The nickname applies because sea turtles return home to lay eggs for the next generation.)

China’s education system emphasizes rote learning at the expense of creativity. While Americans are more often taught to think and speak independently from kindergarten, Chinese students do well in math and science at the expense of independent thinking. Many companies value mathematical ability. But focusing on this alone doesn’t prepare young people for winning clients, giving presentations or closing deals.

In China, students push themselves incredibly hard to get into local universities by studying for the rote learning and memorization heavy “Gao Kao” (higher entrance exam). They have been known to attach intravenous drips to themselves while preparing so they do not have to take meal breaks. But this exam system is “holding China back,” says Helen Gao in The Atlantic:

“If the country wants to keep growing, its state economists know they need to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity, neither of which is tested for on this life-determining exam.”

As this Wharton paper outlines, it may be better for Chinese students to get their degrees from a second- or third-tier foreign university than an elite Chinese school. Multinationals in China say “it is difficult to find acceptable hires despite having so many college-educated applicants,” the paper adds.

Multinationals tend to prefer hiring sea turtles because they come with better inter-cultural skills.

The head of Human Resources for Greater China at an American real estate consultancy told me earlier this year: “We look for US-educated Chinese staff to take senior positions or join the management track. They tend to be better at adjusting to our working culture, presumably as they have lived abroad. Mostly, our locally educated hires cannot think laterally and lack the confidence to make bold decisions. They are uncomfortable expressing opinions, so as managers we never know what they are thinking.”

He said communication between Western managers and locally educated Chinese staff was such a problem his company had resorted to psychometric testing to try and find out exactly how the locals expressed doubt, anger, confidence and other emotions. He added “the tests did not work because they were designed by Westerners for Westerners.”

The head of sales training for East Asia at a British recruitment consultancy shares a different but no less worrying view. “It is very, very hard to train locally educated Chinese people how to call potential clients and persuade them to hire us,” she said. “They believe it is very wrong to approach someone you do not know, and who is above you in the social hierarchy. They tell me my sales training is un-Chinese.”

The IIE data show that the most popular subject for Chinese students to take in America is business/management, at 29% of the total. That may be because American MBAs teach skills such as group work, working in teams with a flat hierarchical structure, and solving real life strategic problems.

The first year of the MBA program at Yale University, for example teaches students “to draw on a broad range of information, tools, and skills to develop creative solutions and make strategic decisions,” its website says.

The second and third most popular subjects for Chinese students at US universities, according to the IIE, are engineering and math/computer science. On its website, the school of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard features an interview with an undergraduate about how her studies there unleashed her creativity.

China’s problem extends to other countries in East Asia. One American lecturer who teaches English at a privately funded Central Taiwanese university told me a few months back:

“My college just held a cartoon drawing competition for undergraduates, who are obviously aged at least 18. Why this was thought suitable for young adults, I cannot say. Anyway, most of their cartoons were carbon copies of images of Spongebob Squarepants or Bugs Bunny.”

Singapore has similar problems. As does South Korea. In this article, a former Korean education minister says the country’s students ”devote themselves to a style of examination preparation centered around memorization.”

Regurgitating chunks of textbook is not a skill multinational companies look for. On the careers section of its website, Goldman Sachs says it prioritizes “quick thinking, passion and communication skills above specific qualifications.” Nestle says on its careers site to potential new recruits: “If you’re keen to take on new and bigger responsibilities, you have to show that you’re able to do so.” Even the insurance sector provides no refuge for the linear thinker. “This is an environment where your creativity matters,” Axa says on its jobs website (italics Axa’s own).

But “sea turtles” do not always do well in China. While away, they lose the ability to build the personal connections that are very important for getting deals done in China’s system known as “guanxi,” This recent University of California, Santa Barbara paper (pdf) outlines how, in the connections-focused venture capital industry, sea turtles are unproductive compared to locally educated staff. And this article illustrates the problems sea turtle academics have assimilating socially and getting promoted when they go home to teach in Chinese universities.

The sea turtles are an immensely important source of business for US institutions. While their numbers are rising, enrollments from the rest of Asia have been falling. According to the IIE, enrollments at US universities by students from India, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea all declined last year. That is likely because the economies of these export-driven countries are slowing down (enrollments from India have also fallen at Australian universities.)

But China’s rich just get richer (paywall). And as China’s income inequality rises, the government still shows no sign of wanting to give its young people the independent thinking skills that may make them more appealing to Western companies but also lead them to question the Communist Party. So sea turtles should help to keep US universities afloat for a while longer.