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Some Things Don’t Change: The Global Draw of American Higher Education

While the American higher education system faces a great deal of criticism on the home front, an American degree carries a great deal of weight internationally.

On November 8, the once-in-a-decade leadership transition of mainland China will occur, just two days after the United States general election. This article is written before knowing the results of either. Politically, the U.S. may be at odds with certain ideals of the Chinese leadership. Yet, one thing is sure, and it can be seen through the droves of undergraduate applications and the interest shown by employers across the globe.

The value of American higher education will remain constant.

Many folks in the U.S. criticize American higher education as being too costly or lacking value. Yet, in China, the United States fiercest economic competitor, the popularity of an American higher education is at its all-time high. According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Door Report, China exports more students to the U.S. than any other country. In the 2006-2007 academic year, the number of Chinese undergraduates enrolled in U.S. schools was 9,955. The next year, it rose to 16,450 and in 2010-2011, 56,976. In total, Chinese undergraduate and graduate enrollments in U.S. universities rose 23% to 157,558 students during the 2011-2012 academic year. Even the daughter of Xi Jinping, the presumed next president and party chief of China, studies as an undergraduate at Harvard University. When push comes to shove, parents would not be sending their only son or daughter to America if they didn’t value the educational experience.

As attractive as it is for many to go abroad, millions of Chinese students don’t want to leave China in the first place and prefer to be closer to their families and not miss career opportunities in China. This creates opportunities for universities to bring that valued American education directly to China.

Fort Hays State University (FHSU) is one of the few American universities offering bachelor’s degrees to Chinese students in China, as opposed to opportunities abroad. FHSU began these cross-border programs with two partnership universities in China in 2000. The programs began with 40 students, and today we have over 3,687 students taking courses leading to five different bachelor’s degrees approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

It is our experience that Chinese parents value this American education to such a degree that they will sacrifice almost anything for their child’s education. We have experienced example after example of a father selling their family oxen or using all of the life’s savings for his child’s education. The disposable income of a middle-class family is more likely to be spent on education than on leisure or entertainment. The average disposable income of urban Chinese households rose to around $3,000 per capita in 2010, according to official governmental statistics by the China Market Research Group. Culturally speaking, in China, children are the retirement plan for parents, and have been for generations. As a result, parents have a real, concrete concern about how well their children do financially, since they plan on living with them and are entitled to take money from them later in life. Choosing American education over other countries speaks volumes about how much value adults place on choosing American education for their children.

So, what attracts students to American higher education?

Given the competitiveness of admission to top-ranking universities in their own countries, students from around the world are now preparing for TOEFL and SAT examinations to try for a place at a university in the U.S. Once they complete an undergraduate degree, applying for post-graduate education is easier. They can also apply for one year of Optional Practical Training (OPT), which permits students to add one year of workforce training to their academic qualifications. Students know that a degree from an American institution, combined with real-life business skills, will be highly valued by multinational and local companies. Plus, they will have improved their English language skills, which are sought-after skills for many employers. Professors that teach at American colleges often have strong connections with businesses across the country and can help students find full-time jobs or internships. What’s more, students who hold an American degree can expect to earn nearly twice as much as those holding lesser certifications in their own country. An American college degree is quite a valuable commodity.

The quality of education in the U.S. is the major motivating factor of international students. This is in part due to the student-centered teaching methods, interaction in the classroom, and competency-based learning. World-class learning facilities combined with practical soft skills, such as creativity, ingenuity, collaboration, and risk-taking help to develop leadership talents. Chinese students’ education experience before coming to America is mainly rote memorization, and doesn’t teach them to think critically. Thus, those that have the privilege of attaining an American degree are miles ahead in the Chinese labor market when compared to those without.

Furthermore, employers seek skills and talents that American education can develop. Recently, FHSU was approached by a Middle East/North African division of a large, popular American corporation to offer credit for its training program. Besides helping to accelerate the degree program for its employees, the corporation wants to use the American diploma as an incentive to recruit employees. In the Middle East and North Africa, working for an American corporation is considered distasteful. However, getting an American education is still valued. So, the corporation wants to reward its stellar employees with tuition benefits for an online American degree, or even to send its young, top-performing employees abroad to FHSU for their last semester as an incentive. Again, the value of American higher education rates as high as health insurance and other benefits awarded to employees.

Thus, for adult learners outside of the U.S., either in their first career or interested in changing careers, aspiring for the valued American education can make the difference in achieving advancement in a career, and consequently bringing home added income for families. In light of this, American higher education institutions that have strategic enrollment plans to recruit international students, either for study abroad or for building partnerships for cross-border dual degrees, are in a better position no matter what leadership is elected this week in Washington, D.C. or what transition occurs in Beijing, China.

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