Many Chinese Students Could Pay U.S. College Costs but Lack the Language Skills, Survey Finds

November 21, 2011

Chinese students seeking to study in the United States have the money to do so but may lack the English-language skills, a survey of 18,000 prospective students found.

Fifty-three percent of those surveyed by Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American colleges and universities about China, said their families can afford to spend $40,000 or more, per year, on an undergraduate education. Another 22 percent reported they could spend between $10,000 and $40,000 a year.

But more than a third of the students in the Zinch study don't speak English well enough to function in an American classroom. Just 18 percent have the advanced linguistic skills that would allow them to participate in a seminar-type setting.

The findings confirm what many American colleges have reported: a recent influx of students from China with limited English proficiency. Students with subpar English often struggle with classroom discussions and may have to spend months in special language courses.

The survey results, however, offer some welcome news to American institutions, as they suggest that a sizable share of students from the largest source country—there are more than 157,550 Chinese students at American colleges, according to recent figures—can afford to pay all, or a substantial part, of their college costs.

While many institutions seek full-paying students when recruiting abroad, Tom Melcher, Zinch China's chairman and the report's author, says he sees many others that "almost reflexively" offer financial aid to international applicants.

The survey suggests that colleges could stop giving financial assistance to many Chinese students without affecting their admissions rates. "If they can target these kids well, they actually can bring resources in," Mr. Melcher says.

He argues that opportunity exists even in the relatively weak English proficiency among those who want to study abroad. For universities with English programs, community colleges, and institutions that offer conditional admission to students with weak language skills, China is a market with tremendous growth potential, he says.

Still, for other colleges, the report illustrates that finding the right fit can be elusive, even in a country that sends tens of thousands of students abroad.

"Unfortunately, the process is like looking for a needle in a haystack," Mr. Melcher writes. "Education fairs and information sessions are often mobbed with tire-kickers, but candidates who speak English well and who can afford an overseas education are hard to find."

While the costs of international recruitment are high, Mr. Melcher, whose company works with more than 260 colleges, mostly American, recommends one low-expense approach: Have current Chinese students make videos about their college experience, in Chinese. Chinese students frequently turn to their peers for guidance in the admissions process, and for assurance that an institution will be a good fit.

The survey is based on interviews conducted between January and August with about 18,000 prospective students who enrolled in the Zinch China network to learn more about applying to college abroad. (It includes some students who are as young as American eighth graders. If the survey focused solely on current high-school seniors, the level of English and the ability to pay would have been higher, but the sample size would have been smaller, the report notes.)

In interviews lasting from 9 to twelve minutes, students' English proficiency was assessed, using an approach based on international language tests. Students were then queried in Chinese about their family's ability to pay for a college education.


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