In two recent blog posts about educational fit - finding the right university for your individual needs - I have mentioned the perception students have about where they are going versus the reality of where they attend. I mentioned how often I hear that students, especially students from China, plan to attend Harvard, but that all the Chinese students I work with and know attend smaller schools like Rosemont College, Arcadia University, Drexel University, and other similar regionally recognized schools. These same students, the very students who are currently attending or have recently graduated from the schools above, tell me that Chinese students want to attend Harvard and will not settle for anything else (unless, possibly Stanford or Yale). I have spoken with several recruiters in China who help students apply for universities in the US. They have all told me their clients only want to attend Top 30 universities, like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.
It seems there is a rather large disconnect between the perception of where Chinese students want to attend university (as reported by Chinese students and recruiters) and where they will actually attend university.
As it turns out, the disconnect is real, is quite significant, and is born out in the enrollment data provided by universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. For example, there were a grand total of 49 students from China enrolled in Harvard College (the undergraduate degree granting school of Harvard University) in the 2014-15 school year(1). That is not 49 per graduating class. It is 49 total undergraduate students, an average of 9.5 per graduating class. The next couple of school years were about the same with enrollment of 45 in 2015-16 and 59 in 2016-17(1).
China is a country with over 1.2 billion people and in the 2014-15 school year, just over 304,000 students from China were studying at American universities(2). That number has since increased to over 350,000 in the 2016-17 school year, the most recent school year for which data was available(2).
Try to wrap your head around those numbers. Over 304,000 students from China attended universities in the US and only 49 were undergraduates at Harvard in 2014-15. To be fair, there were another 693 Chinese graduate students at Harvard University in the same year, for a grand total of 734(9). Chinese undergraduates numbered fewer than Canadians, Britons, and South Koreans, although total Chinese enrollment was the highest of all international countries represented at Harvard. In the next two school years, the total Chinese enrollment increased to 811 and 902, with undergraduate numbers of 45 in 2015-16 and 59 in 16-17(9).
After looking at the Harvard numbers, I thought maybe they would be different for Stanford or Yale, two other schools that are talked about by Chinese students and recruiters. They were not different. Stanford had 57 undergraduates from China in the 14-15 school year(3), 60 undergraduates in the 2015-16 school year(4), and 63 undergraduates in the 2016-17 school year(5). Yale had 58 undergraduates from China in the 14-15 school year(6), 56 undergraduates in the 2015-16 school year(7), and 61 undergraduates in the 2016-17 school year(8).
So, very, very few Chinese students actually attend Harvard, Stanford or Yale as undergraduates. In fact, during the 2016-17 school year, only 1 out of 5,945 Chinese students studying at a university in the US was an undergraduate at Harvard, 1 out of 5,567 was an undergraduate at Stanford, and 1 out of 5,750 was an undergraduate at Yale.
If getting in is tough and then staying in is nearly as tough. Two relatively recent articles detail the large number of Chinese students expelled from American universities and the high dropout rate of Chinese students from Ivy League universities. According to the Wall Street Journal in a 2015 article, an estimated 8,000 Chinese students were expelled with poor grades and cheating cited as the two most common reasons(10). Of the students expelled, more than half were attending top 100 universities at the time.
A Chinese study of students who went overseas to study found that “one in four Chinese students attending Ivy League universities in the US drop out(11).” While perhaps an overestimated number of dropouts, the statistic points to the overall problem of Chinese students struggling in American universities for a variety of reasons including poor educational fit (choosing the university based on reputation and name rather than how it will work for the student), poor language skills, and cultural differences.
From my humble positions as a teacher and as CEO of Scholars’ Promise International, I offer a few thoughts to students, especially those who are looking to study in the US for the first time. First, do not wait until university to study in the US. Start the process earlier by pursuing a high school diploma. I recommend that students study online with Scholars’ Promise because it allows them to maintain their support networks in their home countries while they try to adjust to the American style of teaching and learning. Next, I suggest that students consider the careers they wish to pursue and seek degree programs that will help them achieve their goals. Lots of universities will offer the same degree program so it is then incumbent upon the student to research various universities and determine which one may offer the right fit. Finally, I caution students against saying they want to attend the “best university” and instead focus on finding the “best university for me.”