NEW YORK — At his high school in Beijing, Steven Xiao was considered a bad apple. He laughs, now, when he recalls how his headmaster denounced him and warned his classmates at the Beijing No. 8 High School not to follow his lead. “I was rebellious,” he said. His offense? Taking the SAT, the American college entrance exam, and skipping out on China’s dreaded national college entrance test, commonly known as thegaokao. Talking over beers and roasted Brussels sprouts in an Upper East Side cocktail bar on a Friday evening, Xiao explained how back then, in 2007, it was almost unthinkable for a Chinese high school student to forgo the gaokao. But Xiao’s parents were open-minded and supported his dream of going abroad for college. He did well on the SAT and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Columbia University in New York City. Today he works in finance in midtown Manhattan.
China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?
Xiao didn’t know it at the time, but he was part of a new Chinese undergraduate vanguard. While figures aren’t made public, online test prep company ArborBridgeestimates that some 55,000 Chinese took the SAT last year. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 9.42 million who sat for the multi-day test starting June 7, even adding in those Chinese who take Britain’s A-level exams. But it reflects an increasingly international view of education for Chinese young people, not to mention their parents. Whereas there was once only one path to higher education for most Chinese, now more young people have a choice.
When Xiao arrived as a freshman in 2008, 868 Chinese students attended Columbia. Across the United States, there were 24,248 Chinese undergraduates. Fast forward to today: The latest statistics from Columbia show the Chinese student population at the school hadswelled to 2,849 by the fall of 2013. Nationwide, as of 2014, there were 143,571 Chinese men and women pursuing bachelor’s degrees in the United States, according to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program under the Department of Homeland Security. That marks a 20-fold increase since 2005 when just 6,942 Chinese undergraduates were studying stateside. During the same time period, the numbers of Chinese master’s students in America increased six-fold to 130,748. Doctoral student numbers also grew, though much more modestly.
Shiny Wang, director of college counseling at Beijing No. 4 High School’s international campus, traces the fever for study abroad among Chinese high school students to 2009, when College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement Program, established test centers in China for the Advanced Placement, or AP, test. (There are numerous AP tests, which are more specialized than the SAT.) Wang’s school, Beijing No. 4, established an international track in 2011 to “meet the needs of the kids who can’t balance gaokao and test-prep/overseas college study and excel in both,” he said via email. The new international track had 90 seniors the first year. This year, there are 150 seniors in the program, Wang said.