International student numbers in America hit a record high last year, driven by a 30 per cent increase in Chinese enrolment. There are now nearly 128,000 Chinese students in the US, making up more than 18 per cent of the country's international student population.
This makes China the largest source of students for the United States, replacing India, the Open Doors 2010 report published by the New York-based Institute of International Education shows.
At postgraduate level, applications from Chinese students, including Hongkongers, also soared, up 20 per cent this year, according to Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, which represents more than 500 institutions in North America.
'Over the last six years, we have seen double-digit increases year over year in applications to US graduate schools from Chinese students. The application trend remains very strong,' Stewart says. 'What the US continues to offer is a set of very diverse but very high-quality graduate programmes, and a set of universities in which intellectual inquiry is strongly encouraged.'
US graduate schools allow students to study subjects different from what they majored in at undergraduate level, EducationUSA says.
Exposure to diverse cultures on US campuses has also been an attraction for mainland Chinese students, who in turn are able to study there because of their families' growing affluence.
The number of Hongkongers studying in the US has been rather steady, at about 8,000 a year, of whom close to 1,300 pursue postgraduate study.
'Good international exposure, general offers of internships and financial aid, and the high international rankings of US institutions are attractive factors to them,' says EducationUSA adviser Angel Lau, based at the local US consulate. 'Hong Kong parents and students are highly conscious of institutional rankings; many are interested in attending only certain high-ranking universities or programmes.'
Tuition costs are usually higher at private than public universities. On average, annual fees are US$29,000 for master's programmes and US$33,700 for doctoral courses, according to the US Department of Education. Living expenses are the highest in large cities, in California, and in the northeast.
Research assistantships that offer partial or full waiver of tuition fees, plus a monthly stipend, are widely available to doctoral students, and financial aid is common for students of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Lau says. Overseas students are allowed to work for 12 months upon completion of a master's programme.
One change implemented this year is the revised Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test often required by US graduate schools. New types of questions are asked in the three test sections of verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing, with the intention of better reflecting one's readiness for graduate-level work. Most US business schools require Graduate Management Admission Test scores, but some also accept GRE results.
In mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, the computer-based test is offered once or twice per month. Practice tests and test preparation materials can be found on the GRE website (www.ets.org/gre ).
Calling it a much richer, better assessment, Stewart says: 'It still tests for conceptual aptitude, but it uses different mechanisms, so there is less reliance on memorisation of vocabulary than before.'
Meanwhile, US institutions have kept up their recruitment efforts. During a trip to mainland China and Hong Kong, the University of Michigan's vice-president for global communications and strategic initiatives, Lisa Rudgers, cited an enriching international experience as an incentive to study in the US.
The significance of heightened cross-cultural awareness is part and parcel of today's world, and the mobility of students and academics makes cultural sensitivity even more valuable. 'Research students are more mobile now than earlier generations; it is very likely today that students in law or business, even [those] studying for a doctoral programme, will cross the globe for work for a short or not-so-short time,' Rudgers says.
At the same time, interdisciplinary knowledge is seen to be of rising value. The university's 19 schools and colleges have joined forces to offer joint postgraduate degrees, encouraging interdisciplinary study in areas such as business and law, or engineering and medicine focused on the biosciences, Rudgers says. 'In today's and tomorrow's world as well, there are no problems that won't be solved without being in the sweet spot where many of the disciplines intersect.'