U sees surge in Chinese enrollment

Chinese undergraduate numbers have jumped from 22 to 570 in five years.

Laura Sievert

Simeng Wang’s first week at the University of the Minnesota was hard, maybe even the hardest week he has ever been through. He had just graduated high school in Beijing, and suddenly everything was different.

Now Wang is in his second year studying fine arts at the University and says the longer he stays, the more comfortable he feels.

The University has had consistent enrollment for Chinese graduate students since 2005, but there has been a significant increase in undergraduate applications. In the past five years the number of Chinese undergraduate students has jumped from 22 to 570, according to fall 2009 figures.

Chinese students as a whole made up more than 30 percent of the University’s international student population last fall, totaling more than 1,400. The Chinese students are followed in population by the Republic of Korea, which stood at a little more than 600 students.

The final number of Chinese undergraduate students enrolled this fall will not be released until the Board of Regents has approved it. A preliminary estimate from International Students and Scholars Services projected more than 2,200 Chinese students this fall, though the group said it is too early to give an exact figure.

Sophomore Boyu Li said the University’s lower tuition combined with the improvement of the exchange rate between Chinese yuan and American dollars in recent years has contributed to the increase in Chinese students attending the University.

For Wang, the president of Chinese American Network, tuition was the most important factor. He said many high school students find it difficult to get into good Chinese schools, so they come to the United States.

The Chinese government has also undergone some policy changes that encourage students to study abroad, Li said.

“They opened the range for students to study abroad to get more information from the rest of the world,” she said. “They have also increased the importance of speaking English.”

The type of education offered in the U.S. has also attracted Chinese students.

“We all know America has the highest quality of education,” Li said, “especially in popular majors for Chinese students like mechanical engineering and computer science.”

Though it is not a requirement at the University, many Chinese students hoping to go to high-quality American schools even take American SAT and ACT exams, Li said. They have to travel across the country to Hong Kong, the only place they are offered.

Joseph Nieszner, the executive operations and student services specialist with the College of Science and Engineering, said the national prominence of these programs at the University makes them attractive to interested Chinese students.

“They draw in students from everywhere around the world,” he said.

‘The sea turtle effect’

Maggie Catambay, the database manager for International Students and Scholars Services, said agents from Minnesota and many other universities are soliciting students in China for an American education to increase their recruiting in China.

Unlike most study abroad programs in the U.S., where students spend a semester or two abroad, China’s programs allow students to spend all four years of their undergraduate degree in a foreign country.

Many Chinese students then choose to spend their summers at home. This causes what Catambay and others call “the sea turtle effect” — when Chinese students choose to be citizens of both countries and travel back and forth between the two. This effect continues as they get jobs in the U.S. but maintain their Chinese citizenship.

Despite being halfway around the world, Li acknowledged that the number of Chinese students here makes it easier to stay connected to her country.