For more than a decade Penn State has worked to bring in more and more students from China. The results have been dramatic.
Thirty-seven percent of all international students at University Park this academic year are from China, Penn State Fact Book data show
The 2,411 Chinese students make up 5.2 percent of the campus’s total undergraduate and graduate enrollment, based on last fall’s numbers. By comparison, fall enrollment from within the United States by race or ethnicity was 5.3 percent Hispanic/Latino (2,454 students); 5.6 percent Asian (2,618); and 3.9 percent African-American (1,802).
Chinese enrollment is evenly divided among men and women.
Recruiting is at the heart of Penn State’s effort. But now, with so many of their fellow citizens in Happy Valley, prospective Chinese students also are attracted by word of mouth and through WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China.
Tianze Jiang, a junior from Beijing who is studying electrical engineering, heard of Penn State through a friend.
Having had difficulties on his exams in a Chinese college, he started looking into America’s top 50 science universities. Penn State was on the list.
“I never took SATs and Penn State’s science department doesn’t require an SAT score,” he said. “Also, coming here I would be by myself and learn to grow as a person and learn to face challenges on my own.”
According to Mary Adams, associate director of undergraduate admissions, before this admission year the SAT was only required of first-year international applicants whose native language was English. Now, all first-year international students must submit SAT or ACT scores, with writing.
Penn State began courting international students in 1999. Typically five to six recruiters from the admissions office travel to 21 out of the 25 countries that send students to the U.S., Adams said.
She said they visit high schools to meet with students, guidance counselors, administrators, parents and representatives from EducationUSA and other nonprofit groups that work with students who want to study in America.
One big reason for the attention given to recruiting overseas is money.
International students pay out-of-state tuition — about $30,000 — plus $500 a semester for international fees. This year, Penn State has 8,300 international students at all of its campuses, not including the online World Campus.
In-state students pay about $17,000.
Before arriving, international students must prove that they have at least $56,500 to cover tuition, fees, living expenses and mandatory health insurance for a year. That number rises to $77,800 for the College of Medicine at Hershey.
The hefty price tag hasn’t deterred Chinese parents from wanting their children to become Nittany Lions. In a country with a rising economy and 1.4 billion people, many can afford the costs of a U.S. higher education.
“If parents want to help their kids and they can afford to send their child abroad, they will choose to do so,” said Rose Lee-Yong Tan, coordinator of China engagements at Penn State.
China’s economy is second to the U.S. or, by one measure, No. 1. The International Monetary Fund recently reported that China in 2014 would produce $17.6 trillion in national economic output, compared with $17.4 trillion for the U.S.
Mingyue Cheng, a junior from Shanghai, offered some insight about what an American degree means in China. It isn’t as exceptional as it used to be, she said.
“It all depends on the city you’re from,” she said. “Shanghai and Hong Kong are big cities, so it’s more common to see someone with an American degree. In smaller cities the degree means more because not many people will have one.”
The increase in the number of Chinese students at Penn State has been rapid. At University Park, enrollment rose from 607 in 2004 to 2,411 in 2014 — a 300 percent increase. Across all Penn State campuses, the number jumped from 632 to 3,144 — up 400 percent.
The tipping point for accelerated growth came in 2010, the year Chinese enrollment first passed 1,000 at University Park and all campuses combined.
At all American universities last year, China sent 274,439 students, while India sent 102,673 and South Korea 68,047, according to the Institute of International Education.
The pattern is similar at Penn State’s campuses. After China, the countries sending the most students are South Korea with 889 and India with 878.
Cheng is rare among the Chinese students at Penn State because she is studying visual journalism, a major that isn’t popular among Chinese students. She is undecided about a career and is considering graduate school, she said. Most popular are the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Last year at U.S. universities, 41.6 percent of Chinese students were studying in one of these fields. The second biggest field of study was business management, with 28 percent of Chinese students taking such classes, according to Institute of International Education.
At University Park, fields with the most Chinese graduate students are electrical engineering, energy and mineral engineering, and industrial engineering. For Chinese undergraduates, engineering and science are the dominant majors.
After bringing international students to Penn State, the university has programs to help them. An example is Foundations in Global Engagement, a program for undergraduate and graduate students both international and domestic that aims to make their transition to Penn State and the area smoother. Its events have included a homecoming tailgate, pumpkin carving, a Thanksgiving dinner at the Nittany Lion Inn and a bus trip to the United Nations and the Statue of Liberty.
Staffers for Global Penn State also are alert to foreign students who show signs of stress, loneliness and homesickness, encouraging them to build connections to American students and keep their Penn State links after they return home.
Graduation rates for international students at University Park are below the rates for the campus as a whole, Fact Book data show. The four-year rate for international students is about 60 percent, compared with the overall rate of 68 percent. The six-year rates rise to 80 percent and 86 percent, respectively.