Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why the Chinese are flocking to U.S. colleges

By William Bennett, CNN Contributor
May 31, 2012 -- Updated 1139 GMT (1939 HKT)
A view of McCosh Hall, built in 1906, on the Princeton University campus in New Jersey. William Bennett says many Chinese want their children to attend U.S. universities.
A view of McCosh Hall, built in 1906, on the Princeton University campus in New Jersey. William Bennett says many Chinese want their children to attend U.S. universities.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Many Chinese yearn to send their children to U.S. universities
  • Bennett: Chinese students better prepared in science, math; parental expectations higher
  • In China, U.S. colleges represent freedom, individualism, self-improvement, he says
  • He warns that U.S. must approach education as focused as the Chinese

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- American higher education is in the cross hairs of a heated national debate over the value and cost of a college degree. Yet in China, our fiercest global economic competitor, the popularity of American colleges and universities might be at an all-time high.

I just returned from a trip to Beijing, where I spoke with Chinese parents about the value of American education, where we excel and where we fall short. Not surprising was the extent to which the Chinese value education, especially primary and secondary education, and yearn for their children to attend American universities, and if possible, stay in America.

When I engaged Chinese parents about their children, they would often say, "My son (or daughter) is going to Princeton (or fill in the elite American university)." I would respond, "Great! What year is your son or daughter right now?" And they would say, "Three years old."

William Bennett
William Bennett

This passion for education starting at such an early age is powerful. After meeting with Chinese teachers, parents and children, three differences were immediately clear.

First, their children are better educated than American children in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math. High standards and high expectations are the norm in China, not the exception, as is often the case in the United States.

Second, Chinese parents will sacrifice almost anything for their child's education. They realize firsthand, "History is a race between education and catastrophe," as H.G. Wells put it. In China, the disposable income of middle-class families is more likely to be spent on education than leisure or entertainment.

Third, to the Chinese people, American universities, for all their shortcomings and blemishes, are still beacons of freedom, individualism and self-improvement. To them, our universities are emblems of the highest achievement.

In Asia, they have a saying: "The protruding nail gets hammered down." In America, we give awards for protruding nails.

Our standards should be higher and our achievement better, but we still remain a land of unlimited opportunity. Each of my speeches in China began by reminding the Chinese people of the three, quintessential American values engraved, on our currency: Liberty, In God We Trust and E. Pluribus Unum.

Politically, we may be at odds with the Chinese regime, but its people desperately long for a taste of American autonomy. RISE China, the private international education company that invited me to China and for which I am a compensated senior adviser, focuses on teaching idiomatic English to Chinese students to help them get into American universities.

It also helps Chinese students develop confidence, initiative, commitment and active learning -- all qualities that are cherished by our higher institutions.

As a result, the number of Chinese undergraduate students in the U.S. has doubled in the past two years. In the 2006-07 academic year, 9,955 Chinese undergraduates enrolled in U.S. schools. The next year, that figure jumped to 16,450, and by 2010-11, 56,976 undergraduates enrolled in the U.S. China exports more of its students to the U.S. than to any other country. They are already reaping the benefits educationally and economically.

In February 2011, in a meeting with Silicon Valley's biggest entrepreneurs, President Barack Obama asked Steve Jobs of Apple what it would take to make iPhones in the U.S. rather than China. Jobs replied that those jobs aren't coming back. The New York Times reported it this way: "Apple executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that "Made in the U.S.A." is no longer a viable option for most Apple products."

The Chinese realize the potential of American universities when engaged properly.

When a student approaches the university with a specific degree focus, applies it with diligence and finances it soundly, understanding the commitment he or she is making, the American university system is still the best in the world. American students must begin approaching their higher education just as smartly and seriously, or our academies will be filled with aspiring and inquiring minds from elsewhere.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT