Looking Back at History
Yale University's president, Richard Levin, presents a portrait of Yung Wing (also know as Rong Hong) to China's President Hu Jintao in the Chinese reading room of Yale’s library. Yung Wing was the first native-born Chinese to study in the United States. Reuters

American businesses and capital have been flowing to China for years, but when it comes to education the tide is reversed.

An overwhelming majority of China's wealthiest want to send their children to foreign universities, and the United States is their first choice. Ninety percent of the country's richest people have plans to send their children abroad to study, according to independent research by China's Industrial Bank Co. and the Hurun Report.

Their Chinese Luxury Consumer White Paper 2012 reports that 9 of every 10 Chinese with assets of more than 100 million yuan ($16 million) plan to send their children abroad, while 85 percent of those with at least $1 million said they would send their children overseas for education.

Education is a high priority in China. On average, the country's high-net-worth individuals spend 170,000 yuan (about $27,000), to educate each of their children. This was the third-highest area of their spending, after travel and luxury goods.

Chinese Students Target America

The presence of Chinese students at U.S. academic institutions is growing. They have been the largest group of foreign students in the country since 2010, with 157,588 arriving between 2010 and 2011. That represents a 23 percent increase over 2009-2010. That period also saw a 43 percent jump in the number of Chinese students arriving in the United States for undergraduate education.

Foreign students contributed more than $20 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2010-2011 academic year, through living and educational expenses, according to Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education.

Blumenthal said Chinese families see the education of their often only child -- a product of Beijing's one-child policy -- as a critical investment and consider U.S. schools the international gold standard.

It isn't only the rich families of China, but also those in the country's quickly growing middle class, that want a foreign education for their offspring. The widespread aspiration led China to send more than 350,000 students abroad last year.

The majority go to the United States; other English-speaking countries such as Britain, Canada and Australia attract most of the rest. Switzerland is the only country among the top eight in which English isn't the official or dominant language.

Blumenthal pointed out that an American education will likely remain the leading choice for Chinese students due to its cross-disciplinary fields and development of critical thinking. ... We have every reason to look forward to continued strong flows of Chinese students to the U.S.

India and South Korea closely follow China as countries with the second- and third-biggest populations, respectively, of foreign students in the United States.

Business and management, followed by engineering and computer science, are the most popular degree fields at U.S. schools for Chinese students.

Why Chinese Students Leave

In China, the road from secondary to post-secondary education involves the dreaded hurdle of strenuous national university entrance examinations. Unlike U.S. institutions that value candidates who present themselves as unique, their Chinese counterparts want students who excel on entrance exams that require years of rote learning and a strong grasp of math and science.

China's young netizen community is abuzz with talk about the many differences between China's education system and those of Western countries. Some have even criticized the leading Chinese institution, Peking University, in contrast with elite U.S. universities such as Yale.

Zhao Jun, a municipal education official who is hoping to send his son abroad, told the Atlantic that Chinese courses are too rigid, the method of teaching is too mechanical, and the standard for measuring talent is too one-dimensional.

According to the Industrial Bank and Hurun Report white paper, wealthy Chinese parents value all-around development and quality-oriented education for their children. But even outside the upper class, there is now widespread debate about the stature of China's state education and whether it needs to be reformed.

Party Bosses' Children

Even China's ruling elite isn't immune to the attraction of sending its children overseas.

Western media have reported that Xi Mingze, the daughter of Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to become the new president of China and chairman of its Communist Party, is studying at Harvard University under an assumed name. (The university hasn't confirmed to the International Business Times that she indeed studies there.)

Walking around campus, though, she could have run into the son of Bo Xilai, the recently dismissed party boss in Chongqing, who attends the same institution.

Coming To America

The tradition of Chinese coming to America for education before making their mark back home has a long history. The first Chinese student to graduate from a U.S. university, industrialist and political reformer Yung Wing, received a degree from Yale in 1854 and later naturalized to become a U.S. citizen.

However, most wind up staying for the long term. Last year, Fujian's Overseas Chinese (Huaqiao) University estimated that only 497,400 of the 1.62 million students that arrived in the United States between 1978 and 2009 returned to the land of their birth. That means almost 70 percent of the Chinese students who came to the U.S. during that period made it their new home.

Sending an only child thousands of miles away, possibly for the rest of his or her life, is emotionally difficult. Still, the high value placed on U.S. schools, coupled with the attraction of studying English, the international language of business, provide compelling reasons for Chinese families hoping to build a strong future for their sons and daughters.