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Chinese students enrolling in U.S. colleges in record numbers

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The food, the language, the students, the classes ­— for Neo Nie, everything at Governors State University is different from Guangdong University of Technology, the school he attended in China.

Everything but his sport, table tennis.

Governors State, a south suburban commuter school with no dorms, has never fielded an intercollegiate school sports team before its year-old table tennis team. That team is now ranked 16th in the country, ahead of much larger schools like Penn State and Michigan State.

The secret to their success? All but three players on the team are from China, where table tennis is the national sport.

At schools locally and nationally, Chinese students are enrolling in record numbers, a sign of how strong the Chinese economy is and how valuable an American degree remains.

“We’re invading your country,” joked Jun Niu, a 27-year-old math doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago from Chengdu.

Niu said a degree from the United States is a hot commodity in developing China.

“If you get a degree in China and then get a graduate degree in the U.S. it’s a plus,” he said. “You have a more diverse educational background and you have better English.”

Foreign students pay full-price tuition, may pay additional fees and typically don’t get financial aid, so enrolling these students brings a financial benefit for schools struggling to balance their budgets. Chinese students get language skills and an American degree, and American students benefit from having foreign students in classes and dormitories, university officials say.

Of the 691,000 foreign students who enrolled in American universities in the 2009-2010 academic year, nearly 128,000 — or 18 percent — were Chinese. China exported more students to the United States than any other country last academic year and 30 percent more Chinese students than the previous year, according to the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors 2010 report, published with support from the State Department.

In Illinois, China ranked as the country of origin for 6,800 of the nearly 31,100 foreign students at colleges and universities in the state. China was followed by India, South Korea, Taiwan and Canada as the top five countries exporting students to Illinois public and private schools.

China has been the top exporter of students to the U.S. twice before — in the late 1980s and the late 1990s. Then, China sent mostly graduate students studying science and technology.

Now, Chinese students increasingly are coming to study as undergraduates.

“There is a whole new wave of middle-class parents in China who want the best education they can get for their child,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education. “And they can pay for it.”

And pay they do at schools like University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has 7,223 foreign students enrolled as undergraduates and graduate students in the current school year. In the 2009-2010 school year, China surpassed South Korea as the biggest exporter to the state’s flagship university.

University of Illinois officials said unlike other local schools, they do not have a recruiting presence in China. Students hear about Illinois’ flagship campus through word of mouth, they said. The Downstate campus ranks third nationally for the number of foreign students attending, and is the top public university in terms of the number of foreign students in the United States, according to the Open Doors report.

Wolfgang Schloer, the interim provost for international affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he was surprised by how quickly the numbers of Chinese students on campus have grown. He said while China has increased capacity in that country’s universities, it still can’t handle demand.

“There is a huge premium placed on higher education, and students have to go somewhere,” he said.

Robert Easter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s interim chancellor and provost, said major Illinois companies are willing to pay for Chinese students to study in the United States.

“There is an interest on the part of our Illinois corporations who are doing a lot of business in China to have employees who have a U.S. education,” he said.

Five years ago at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Carlo Segre, associate dean for graduate admissions, said students from India outnumbered students from China more than 5 to 1 among foreign students on campus.

“This last year, it’s almost totally flipped what it was before,” he said. Chinese students are now the predominant foreign group at IIT.

IIT is second after Illinois in the total number of foreign students on campus, followed by UIC, Northwestern and Southern Illinois University -Carbondale.

There can be conflict. A UCLA student’s posting of a video earlier this month mocking Asian students —in this case, Japanese not Chinese — has led to a broader discussion of problems Asian students may face.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, author Allie Grasgreen described how some Asian students feel they are held to higher standards by some professors.

For non-Asian students, they may see Asian students “as being basically a privileged group, a group that is taking over the university system,” Rosalind S. Chou, co-author of Myth of the Model Minority, told Inside Higher Ed.

Serge said he tells foreign students to move beyond their peer group if they want to get the most out of their American experience.

“We’re very close to Chinatown, and Chinese students feel comfortable in this part of town,” he said. “I do encourage them not to have this comfort level and to immerse themselves in English.”

Easter said American students benefit by having international students on campus, creating more of the global community students will graduate into. But he and officials at other Illinois campuses acknowledged that large groups of students from a particular country often self-segregate.

Keira Huang, 22, a senior at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign who transferred from a Chinese university after her sophomore year, credited her American boyfriend with introducing her into a social circle of American students.

That’s not the experience of many Chinese students, she said.

“They definitely stick with each other,” she said. “Most of them complain that we want to have more American friends, practice English and learn more about the Western campus. But they stick with each other maybe because they are shy or afraid of a new environment.”

Huang said the campus culture, in and out of the classroom, is looser here than in China.

“People go out a lot here to the bars,” she said. “People are so casual here. In China, we are more serious.”

She’s heading to the London School of Economics for a master’s degree in the fall with no regrets about leaving home.

“I’m so happy that I made the decision,” she said. “I like different cultures, I like to explore a new world and I like that it’s an open, casual and free environment.”

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