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College Admission News-U.S. Colleges Bask in Surge Of Interest Among Chinese

U.S. Colleges Bask in Surge Of Interest Among Chinese

May 01, 2009

Source: Washington Post, A1

By Susan Kinzie

It's an admissions officer's dream: ever-growing stacks of applications from students with outstanding test scores, terrific grades and rigorous academic preparation. That's the pleasant prospect faced by the University of Virginia and some other U.S. colleges, which are receiving a surging number of applications from China.

"It's this perfect, beautiful island of people who are immensely motivated, going to great high schools," marveled Parke Muth, director of international admission at U-Va.

A decade ago, 17 Chinese students applied to U-Va. Three years ago, 117 did. This year, the number was more than 800 out of almost 22,000 candidates -- so many that admissions officers had to devise new ways to select from the pool of strong applicants.

Chinese students' growing interest in U-Va. is partly a result of the school's outreach and strong reputation. But even some schools that don't recruit in China have seen a rapid increase in applicants.

Until fall 2007, the number of Chinese undergraduates in the United States had held steady for years, at about 9,000, according to the Institute of International Education, which promotes study abroad. But that year, it jumped to more than 16,000.

Experts say China's increasing wealth, fewer delays in obtaining visas and technology that makes it easier for Chinese students to learn about U.S. schools have helped fuel the boom. It shows no sign of letting up.

"People just think the education offered in the U.S. is undoubtedly the best in the world," said Betty Xiong, 20, a U-Va. junior from Shanghai.

In China, chat rooms buzz with admissions advice. Students travel to South Korea, Singapore or New Zealand to take the SAT; the College Board is adding more testing centers in Hong Kong to meet the demand. Agents promise to get students into top schools with glossy, elaborately packaged applications and extras such as videos.

Japan and South Korea still send more undergraduates to U.S. schools, according to the most recent data, but China is gaining. China's growing middle class provides an expanding pool of people able to afford overseas travel and tuition, and parents often are willing to pay a considerable sum to educate an only child. "People are getting richer, and they can afford it," said Mu Chen, 21, a U-Va. sophomore from Shenzhen. "And many Chinese parents now realize they have to send their kids out to broaden their views and explore the world."

Many Chinese families seek out U.S. schools that offer financial aid or generous merit scholarships.

Most Chinese students find the math section of the SAT easy, several students said, but the vocabulary on the verbal test is difficult. Despite the language barrier, Donald Holder, who was assistant principal at an elite school in Shenzhen, said the average score there in 2007 was 2100 out of a possible 2400. Most students got 800, the top score, on math tests.

But gaining admission to U-Va. and many other state schools is more difficult for Chinese students than it is for their U.S. peers because the schools limit the number of international students they accept. U-Va. admits about two-thirds of its students from Virginia and most of the rest from within the United States.

Historically, students have been more likely to come to the United States for advanced degrees and research opportunities. The dramatic shift is in the rising number of undergraduates.

"In China, because so much of the growth is tied to international trade and multinational corporations with investment in China, the value of U.S. higher education is clearly understood and worth the investment of cash on the other side," said Peggy Blumenthal, chief operating officer of the Institute of International Education. Students started arriving about 1980, after the normalization of relations. There was a dip in applications after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, Blumenthal said, because the Chinese government made it more difficult for students to leave.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it became much more difficult for foreign students to secure student visas. Now delays are less common. Students can be more confident of gaining entry if they commit to a U.S. school.

Demand is so strong that businesses now sell advice to Chinese applicants trying to decipher the U.S. admissions process. Some agents claim to work for specific schools or offer to write essays and recommendation letters.

"We get these absolutely stunningly beautiful booklets," Muth said. One was 120 pages long. Some are like coffee-table books, he said, with photos worthy of National Geographic.

Not that admissions officials read them. They don't have time, and the extra material doesn't affect their decisions, Muth said.

In the past three years, the number of Chinese applicants to Georgetown University's freshman class rose from 95 to 208. At George Mason University, the total went from 54 to almost 100, and at George Washington University, it increased from 170 to 350. Brown University's applications went from 166 to nearly 500, and Stanford University's, from 268 to more than 400. At the University of Washington, the number soared from about 250 three years ago to nearly 1,600 this year.

Many schools are recruiting more intensely in China. Muth now travels to cities beyond Beijing and Shanghai, often to competitive magnet schools.

Hearing from the admissions office carries the same frenzy as it does at competitive U.S. high schools. But there's a smaller network of Chinese applicants. Rumors travel quickly.

This year, U-Va. started doing interviews by telephone, and "within literally 10 minutes of the first student having been called, I was getting e-mails: 'Why haven't I heard?' It's unbelievable, the networking," Muth said.

About eight years ago, U-Va. began offering full scholarships to a couple of Chinese students each year. One student, Qiao Ma, wrote columns for a Chinese magazine about her life at an American college.

U-Va. could hardly have planned it better: A glowing account of life at the Charlottesville campus has given it great name recognition in China.

U-Va. not only gave her a competitive career advantage, said Ma, who is now at Harvard Business School, but also "really encouraged me to think as an independent person and not be afraid to speak my mind."