By Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer
the new york times
Dozens of new students crowded into a lobby of the University of Delaware’s student center at the start of the school year. Many were stylishly attired in distressed jeans and bright-colored sneakers; half tapped away silently on smartphones while the rest engaged in boisterous conversations.
Eavesdropping on those conversations, however, would have been difficult for an observer not fluent in Mandarin. That’s because, with the exception of one lost-looking soul from Colombia, all the students were from China.
Among them was Yisu Fan, whose flight from Shanghai had arrived six hours earlier. Too excited to sleep, he had stayed up all night waiting for orientation at the English Language Institute to begin.
Like nearly all the Chinese students at Delaware, Fan was conditionally admitted – that is, he can begin taking university classes once he successfully completes an English program.
He plans to major in finance and, after graduation, to return home and work for his father’s construction company.
He was wearing hip, dark-framed glasses and a dog tag around his neck with a Chinese dragon on it.
He chose to attend college more than 7,000 miles from home, Fan said, because “the Americans, their education is very good.”
That opinion is widely shared in China, which is part of the reason the number of Chinese undergraduates in the United States has tripled in just three years, to 40,000, making them the largest group of foreign students at U.S. colleges. While other countries, like South Korea and India, have for many years sent high numbers of undergraduates to the United States, it’s the sudden and startling uptick in applicants from China that has caused a stir at universities – many of them big, public institutions with special English-language programs – that are particularly welcoming toward international students.
Universities like Delaware, where the number of Chinese students has leapt to 517 this year, from eight in 2007.
The students are mostly from China’s rapidly expanding middle class and can afford to pay full tuition, a godsend for universities that have faced sharp budget cuts in recent years.
But what seems at first glance a boon for colleges and students alike is, on closer inspection, a tricky fit for both.
Colleges, eager to bolster their diversity and expand their international appeal, have rushed to recruit in China, where fierce competition for seats at Chinese universities and an aggressive admissions-agent industry feed a frenzy to land spots on U.S. campuses.
College officials and consultants say they are seeing widespread fabrication on applications, whether that means a personal essay written by an agent or an English proficiency score that doesn’t jibe with a student’s speaking ability. U.S. colleges, new to the Chinese market, struggle to distinguish between good applicants and those who are too good to be true.
Wenting Tang is quick to laugh, listens to high-energy bands like Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and OK Go, and describes herself on her Facebook page as “really really fun” and “really really serious.” Tang, a junior majoring in management and international business, speaks confident, if not flawless, English. That wasn’t always the case. When she applied to the University of Delaware, her English was, in her estimation, very poor.
Tang, who went to high school in Shanghai, didn’t exactly choose to attend Delaware, a public institution of about 21,000 students that admits about half its applicants – and counts Vice President Joe Biden among prominent graduates. Tang’s mother wanted her to attend college in the United States, and so they visited the offices of a dozen or more agents, patiently listening to their promises and stories of success.
Her mother chose an agency that suggested Delaware and helped Tang fill out her application, guiding her through a process that otherwise would have been bewildering. Because her English wasn’t good enough to write the admissions essay, staff members at the agency, which charged her $4,000, asked her questions about herself in Chinese and produced an essay. (Test prep was another $3,300.)
Now that she can write in English herself, she doesn’t think much of what the employees wrote. But it served its purpose: she was admitted, and spent six months in the English-language program before beginning freshman classes. And despite bumps along the way, she’s getting good grades and enjoying college life. As for allowing an agent to write her essay, she sees that decision in pragmatic terms: “At that time, my English not better as now.”
Zinch China, a consulting company that advises U.S. colleges and universities about China, last year published a report based on interviews with 250 Beijing high school students bound for the United States, their parents, and a dozen agents and admissions consultants. The company concluded that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive. The “tide of application fraud,” the report predicted, will likely only worsen as more students go to America.
Tom Melcher, Zinch China’s chairman and the report’s author, says it’s simplistic to vilify agents who provide these services. They’re responding, he says, to the demands of students and parents.
During this past September’s orientation on the University of Delaware’s Newark campus, Scott Stevens, director of the English Language Institute, stood on stage in front of a mostly filled theater. Behind him, on a large screen, was a stock photo of two white college students seated at desks. The male student was leaning over to look at the female student’s paper. “We are original, so that means we never cheat!” Stevens told the audience of primarily Chinese students, mixing compliments and warnings. “You are all very intelligent. Use that intelligence to write your own papers.”
Stevens has worked at the language institute since 1982. As the program has swelled in the past few years, the institute has outgrown its main building and expanded to classroom space behind the International House of Pancakes on the campus’ main drag. Watching Stevens over the course of a day, it’s clear that he is a man with more tasks than time. It’s also clear that he’s proud of his well-regarded institute and that he cares about students. He gives out his cellphone number and tells them to call any time, even in the middle of the night, if they need him.
But he is candid about the challenges Delaware is facing as the population of Chinese students has grown from a handful to hundreds. Confronting plagiarism is near the top of the list. Stevens remembers how one student memorized four Wikipedia entries so he could regurgitate whichever one seemed most appropriate on an in-class essay – an impressive, if misguided, feat. American concepts of intellectual property don’t translate readily to students from a country where individualism is anathema. (In the language program, Stevens says there has been no surge in formal disciplinary actions, as instructors prefer to handle questions of plagiarism in the classroom.)
Just as an understanding of authorship is bound up in culture, so are notions of authority. “It’s not simply the language and culture but the political element as well,” he says. “We’re well aware that the Chinese are raised on propaganda, and the U.S. is not portrayed very positively. If you’ve been raised on that for the first 18 years of your life, when it comes down to who they trust – they trust each other. They don’t particularly trust us.”
Some universities, including Delaware, have hired agents overseas, a practice that is banned in domestic recruiting, and this year has been at the center of a debate within the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Though the agents act as universities’ representatives, marketing them at college fairs and soliciting applications, that’s no guarantee that colleges know the origin of the applications, or the veracity of their grades and scores.
For those on the ground, there’s deepening concern that American colleges have entered China without truly understanding it.
For officials like Stevens, who has been dealing with international students for nearly three decades, Chinese undergraduates are like a code he’s still trying to decipher: “How can we reach them? How can we get them to engage?”
“That,” he says, “is something that keeps me up at night.”
By Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer