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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT