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​American universities' lucrative market: China

There's a 21st century culture clash brewing on some U.S. campuses.

Chinese students are increasingly enrolling in American universities, thanks to rising wealth in that country and a desire for a Western education. In turn, many U.S. colleges are actively recruiting Chinese students as a way not only to build diversity on their campuses but to add tuition money to their coffers. It might seem like a match made in heaven, but in some cases the dynamics are leading to frustration in the classroom and questions from American students and professors about the push.

Chinese students now make up the biggest chunk of international students at American colleges, representing about one-third of all international students, according to the Institute of International Education. That surge hasn't come without growing pains, however: One study published last year found that U.S. colleges kicked out as many as 8,000 Chinese students over three years for issues such as academic dishonesty and poor performance. For Chinese students, arriving on an American campus can deliver a double-dose of culture shock and language struggles.

The experience is "bittersweet," said Jenna Luo Massey, a lecturer and program director for the full-time Integrated Marketing Communications' masters program at Northwestern University's Medill School. Massey, who is Chinese and graduated from Peking University, said that Chinese students "have a steep learning curve."

"We see some students come here who struggle a lot in terms of cultural barriers and language issues and they wouldn't perform as I would expect them to," she said. Chinese students are also used to a more passive role in the classroom "instead of challenging authority and thinking outside the box," she added.

That can lead to complaints from faculty and students, with The Wall Street Journal noting that one professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign said he relies on simpler language in his classroom to help avoid confusing Chinese students. He added that he often couldn't understand them when they asked questions.

Finding students who can adapt and manage in the U.S. school system is one reason why Northwestern partners with schools in Asian countries to recruit students, Massey said.

"We try to focus on the overall quality of the students, not just the test scores," she said. That means assessing their "soft" skills, such as interpersonal ones like making eye contact and communication, she added.

The culture clash is likely to continue, albeit at a slightly reduced pace. The slowing Chinese economy may mean fewer families there can afford to send their children to school in the U.S. Already, there's been a slight slowdown, according to the Institute of International Education. The number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. rose 11 percent in 2014-15, down from 17 percent and 21 percent in the previous two academic years.

That might prompt U.S. colleges to look to other countries for recruitment. Tuition from non-U.S. students can be as high as three times the rate paid by students attending their state colleges, according to The Journal. American families are increasingly struggling to pay college costs that have risen far faster than the rate of inflation. Cuts in state support for higher education are largely to blame for the tuition spikes at public universities in recent years, according to a report last year from the left-leaning think tank Demos.

A shift toward recruiting students of other nationalities appears to have already started, given that the growth of Indian students studying in the U.S. outpaced Chinese students for the 2014-15 academic year.

As for the Chinese students studying on American campuses, Massey points out that language problems aren't the same as intellectual issues.

"Because they don't speak English well in the first two to three months doesn't mean they aren't smart," she said, adding that many Chinese students perform well with math and analytic skills. "Everybody has their own strengths and disadvantages. It's the professors' job to see where they can improve the students."

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