U.S. universities are enrolling affluent Chinese students in growing numbers, a trend that feeds heavy demand in China for American higher education - - and helps American colleges shore up their revenues. Here is a guest post by Carey Thompson, vice president of enrollment and communications at Rhodes College in Memphis, which enrolls 45 Chinese students out of a student population of 1,800.

There is, in American higher education, a rush to recruit students from China, which has tripled the number of students it has sent to U.S. institutions in the past three years.

Betty Xiong, center, a 20 year-old Chinese student at U-Va., gathers the pots she needs to start cooking rice cakes. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Selling Chinese families on the value of a college education in the United States is complicated for our national, private liberal arts colleges. On the one hand, American higher education is still perceived in China as the gold standard. On the other hand, Chinese universities are more akin to American research universities, and thus Chinese people often equate quality with size.

Recently, I joined colleagues from 13 other top liberal arts colleges on a recruiting trip to China. We were the first group allowed into some of the best public schools in Beijing, which in China are equivalent in quality to the best private schools here. Our goal was to show how colleges that teach arts and sciences can be just as effective, if not more so, in preparing students for jobs and life, than large research universities. Our message to Chinese students and parents was, “go to an American liberal arts college, and you can do anything you want.”

I think we made some progress in talking with people and with the Chinese media. While most Chinese are used to big universities, in recent years, there has been some recognition that strict adherence to technical learning does not often produce the kind of well-rounded graduates who have leadership and creative potential. So with that background, I believe we had some success getting our points across about the value of a liberal arts education and its ability to help students think critically, communicate effectively and work with diverse groups in the real world.

When I met with Chinese families, I spoke about students like Xinran (Andy) Chen, who flew 14 hours from Tianjin, China to attend Rhodes in Memphis. Just a freshman, Andy is considering a bridge major in economics/business and commerce with a minor in either international studies or environmental science. Like many Chinese students, Andy winnowed his list of schools down from the top 50 liberal arts colleges as ranked by US News & World Report.

Andy is one of the more informed consumers, as his father is a professor at a Chinese university and understood the American higher education system, including the value of attending a private liberal arts college like Rhodes. Andy was drawn to Rhodes’ sense of community, and by the fact that we offered more scholarship than large American universities. But even he admits that most Chinese students and their parents prefer big universities, because that is all they know.

The good news is that China’s top universities do not have room for all of the nation’s brightest students, and the Chinese are looking to the very best American institutions to place more high school graduates. While many of the top liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are not yet household names in China, there seems to be an openness to learning more about them.

So we have a great opportunity to show how a liberal arts degree can help Chinese students get into MBA and Ph.D. programs, be a leader in virtually any field, and learn a new culture. I think we got our point across, but it’s a point we’ll have to continue to make each year.