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

Chinese students, drawn to the University of Virginia for its academic reputation and the opportunity to study abroad, support each other in a cultural group on campus.
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

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.

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