How Chinese Parents Select Schools for their Children

As a US client relations manager, I was asked by a number of US colleges that how applicants decide where to apply: what is the relative importance of rankings, reputation, cost, program details, location, etc? Determining which of these factors to emphasize in an educational institution’s marketing materials is an art, not a science, based on understanding what motivates your ideal applicant.

The challenge when recruiting Chinese students, however, is that they have a different set of motivations. Some of these overlap with their overseas counterparts but many do not. Some are non-issues for a non-Chinese applicant. Given these differences, it’s important to understand the mindset of the typical Chinese applicant – only then can you be sure that your marketing messages will hit their intended mark.

Based on conversations with thousands of Chinese students and their parents, I’m confident that six issues dominate their selection process:

1. Country. Very few Chinese families look at schools in more than one country. Said differently, they tend to choose the country first, and then start looking at specific schools. I think that this is primarily because the admissions requirements and application calendar vary greatly across countries. Based on the statistics, most Chinese families prefer the United States. They generally assume that the education is “better”, and that it will be easier for their child to find a job back in China with that degree. When they look at other countries, it’s typically because they already have relatives or friends in that country.

Given the popularity of the United States, and my own background, many of the examples below are from American programs.

2. Brand awareness. Chinese students and parents pay attention to brands. They are heavily influenced by word of mouth – by whether they have “heard of” the school. This is somewhat similar to the fact that some Americans think that schools with a famous football team are of high quality, even though many American educators beg to differ.

But other excellent overseas schools are not well known at all. Even more surprising is that schools that are not especially well known in their home country can be very well-known in China, primarily due to aggressive marketing in China by these schools and/or their agents. In short, overseas schools should not assume that the “brand awareness” they enjoy in their home country exists in China.

3. US News ranking (or the relevant local ranking). When looking at American programs, Chinese students and their parents are extraordinarily focused on a school’s US News & World Report ranking, specifically the “National Universities” list, and the “Top Graduate Schools” listings. Chinese parents don’t really understand what the other lists mean (such as “Liberal Arts College,” “Master’s – North,” etc).

The Chinese name for ‘US News’ makes it sound as if it is an official government ranking, rather than a ranking from a magazine. This confusion is compounded by the fact that in China, private-sector rankings of colleges and graduate programs do not exist. Instead, the government issues its own ranking of undergraduate programs. This ranking is accepted without question and is an integral part of the school selection process. As a result, Chinese parents are conditioned to trust and rely on a ranking system. Even if they intellectually understand the problems inherent with the US News ranking system, they still pay a great deal of attention to it.

It is also important to know that the “Top Graduate Schools” listings from US News are important when Chinese families are choosing an undergraduate program. When Chinese students apply for undergraduate study in China, they must apply to a specific major. As a result, Chinese families are used to looking at rankings for majors, and also for schools.

In other countries, this focus on rankings is equally strong, especially when the government stands behind the ranking. In recent years there have been several ‘global’ rankings, but those have not yet made it into the mainstream within China.

4. Safety. Compared to China, which has a homogenous and tightly controlled society, most overseas countries are dangerous. While many Chinese students are drawn to great cities like New York or London, their parents are increasingly skittish. Because violent crime in China is so rare, Chinese parents and students are not accustomed to it and therefore have a hard time separating fact from sensationalist news coverage.

5. Student body demographics. Although they are loath to ever admit it, most Chinese students and parents are biased against schools with large populations of dark-skinned students. Interestingly, many are also biased against schools with a large Chinese or Korean population – parents want their children to learn “foreign” culture, which they interpret to mean “Caucasian” culture. Of course, many Chinese applicants end up at schools with large Asian populations, but unless the school is very famous, most Chinese parents I know complain about this situation. Separately, sexual diversity is still an uncomfortable topic in China, especially for parents.

Chinese parents are also biased against schools with a strong religious affiliation unless, of course, the Chinese family is a member of that religion.

6. Cost and financial aid. Interestingly, this decision factor is almost an after-thought for most applicants to undergraduate programs, but is paramount for most applicants to graduate programs. The vast majority of Chinese applicants to American undergraduate programs do not need financial aid. This is due to many factors, and is good news for overseas programs. For these applicants, the existence of financial aid is important, but often not a deciding factor. Neither is cost – if a Chinese family is wealthy enough to afford an overseas undergraduate education, they are not especially sensitive to the price difference between an affordable and a more-expensive program.

The situation is dramatically different for most Chinese applicants to graduate programs. For them, financial aid is incredibly important. Unfortunately, it is hard for these students to track down clear information about the availability of financial aid. In addition, most of these students want a 1 to 2 year program, for which financial aid is limited.

This fixation on US News rankings, and the general lack of understanding about how to effectively compare overseas programs, presents significant challenges (and opportunities) to admissions professionals. Even if your program ranks high on the US News list, you will still need to explain why it might be a better fit than a higher ranked school. If your program is not on the list, or is ranked outside the top 100, then you need to explain why it still might be a good choice.

Make sure your China marketing strategy, and all your supporting materials, clearly address these top six issues before plunging into any other detail. When you do move beyond these six areas, remain aware that what is important to local applicants (or those from other foreign countries) is unlikely to be as important to Chinese applicants.

Understanding these key differences, and exploiting them, is the key to successful recruiting in China.

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