I am watching an intriguing phenomenon in American education that has long-term implications for our economy and China’s political life.
There is a large and increasing influx of high-paying Chinese students from China coming to the United States for high school and college.
The University of Illinois has 600 students from mainland China in the Freshman class, 10% of the enrollment. Other colleges have taken a similar course. On average, the international students are paying twice as much as in-state students.
There is also a significant flow of high school students attending private schools around the country. Some have sprouted up specifically to attract affluent Chinese, who will pay over $40,000 a year in tuition for elite schools.
The media often decries American higher education for dumbing down the requirements for a degree, and many stars in Silicon Valley say college is for dummies. After all, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zukerberg all dropped out after Freshman year to start their companies. But Chinese parents and kids crave the American high school and college experience.
Anecdotally, they say the reason they come here is to find “creativity,” which they see as the Holy Grail missing from Chinese education. Ironically, the Zuckerbergs and Gates’s left college for the same reason. Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who backed PayPal and Uber and other phenomenally successful new enterprises, has made a public splash by advocating that creative young people forsake the college path to follow their muse and their dreams rather than getting bogged down in Botany. But the Chinese are pouring in because they think “creativity” is in the soil in Champaign and Bloomington and Austin.
Those Chinese parents and Peter Thiel are probably both right. For a Harvard dropout like Zuckerberg, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is sterile compared to an Animal House in Palo Alto where he lived while growing the nascent Facebook. But for 15-year-old kids from Shanghai, the intellectual freedom available at an elite American high school could be a boon.
On the other hand, for the Chinese elites running the Communist Party and trying to cope with ferment in Hong Kong, thousands of American educated young people heading back to the country from years of freedom in American universities may be rather scary.
The Chinese experiment with an authoritarian state apparatus and an economy fueled by independent entrepreneurs may be headed for a big collision. The Chinese government leaders have to be wary of a Jack Ma, the charismatic founder of Alibaba who found backing from Jerry Yang of Yahoo and Japanese entrepreneur Masayoshi Son to grow his phenomenal online business. Jack Ma is a one-in-a-billion guy who could somehow finesse his business around the Communist Party and endless government meddling to grow the company a million fold in a few years. A former English teacher, he is a self-taught entrepreneur. He did not find his creative mojo at Stanford or Urbana.
Will there be an English teacher like Jack Ma coming out of the 600 kids enrolled at University of Illinois in the class of 2018? Highly unlikely. Most of the students are starting out in Math and Science, with 3% in Liberal Arts.
Meanwhile, I await the pushback from Illinois parents and young people who missed the cut at Champaign because of 600 full tuition payers coming from the Chinese Mainland.
Question 1: Is college worth the debt?
Question 2: Can you teach creativity?