The lure of Chinese students


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    Brad Van Den Elzen, director of the International Students and Scholars Office at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, welcomes a new group of international students. The university aims to double the number of foreign students on campus in the next five years.

    - Amy Scott/Marketplace

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    19-year-old Fu Ying, who goes by Cherie, buys a flurry at an ice cream stand in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. She's one of 130 Chinese students attending UW Stevens Point. She hired an agent to help with her application.

    - Amy Scott/Marketplace

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    Ye Shengming, 21, goes by Eldon. His family paid an agency called Shanghai Shenyuan the equivalent of about $5,000 to help him apply to the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. Though Eldon says he wrote his own application materials, former employees from the agency say they routinely faked applications for students applying to other US colleges.

    - Amy Scott/Marketplace

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    Ye Shengming plays guitar in his dorm room at Stevens Point.

    - Amy Scott/Marketplace

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    From left, Fu Ying, Zuo Wei, Xiaoran Sun, and Yu Jing are part of a growing group of Chinese students at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Six years ago there were 12 students from China on campus. Today there are about 130.

    - Amy Scott/Marketplace

Kai Ryssdal: Yesterday on the program, Rob Schmitz, our correspondent in Shanghai, took us inside what you might fairly call the Chinese education industry. About the lengths parents go to to get their kids, their only kids, into American colleges and universities. It's a good-sized cottage industry of companies that write essays and recommendation letters and provide fake transcripts -- all to get a foot in the schoolhouse door.

Today, some of the customers of those agencies -- the Chinese students -- and the universities that recruit them. From our Education Desk at WYPR, Marketplace's Amy Scott picks up the story.


Amy Scott: Imagine growing up in Shanghai, one of the largest cities in the world, and landing here. Stevens Point, in the middle of Wisconsin. Population: 25,000.

Starbucks employee: What can I get for you?

Ye "Eldon" Shengming: Uh, just latte.

Starbucks Employee: Black tea?

Eldon: Yeah.

Starbucks employee: Hot one?

Starbucks employee: Latte.

Starbucks employee: Oh, a latte. Absolutely.

I met Ye Shengming at a Starbucks in Stevens Point. He goes by Eldon.

Eldon: I just look up in the dictionary and find it randomly.

Eldon is 21. He came here to study accounting at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.

In China, high school students take a single test that determines where they go to college. Here, there are tests and essays and recommendation letters and transcripts. So like thousands of Chinese families, Eldon's parents hired an agency that specializes in getting students into American schools. They paid the equivalent of about $5,000 to a company called Shanghai Shenyuan to help him with his applications.

Eldon: Because this agency did this job for quite long years, so I think they can make sure you can go abroad or not.

As we reported out of Shanghai yesterday, the methods Chinese agencies use to get students into U.S. schools are not always honest. We spoke to two former employees from Shanghai Shenyuan who told us they routinely got high schools to falsify to students' grades. The agents said they made up students' reference letters, and wrote their essays for them.

Anonymous employee 1: I usually just made them up using my own ideas. Sometimes I'd browse the internet or read magazines for inspiration.

That former agent asked us not to use her name fear of losing her job.

Eldon says he wrote his own application. But other Chinese students told me it's common for agencies to fake application materials.

Fu "Cherie" Ying: You just give them the list of schools you're interested, and they will do it for you.

Fu Ying goes by Cherie. She's a sophomore communication major at U.W. Stevens Point. Cherie also says she wrote everything herself -- though she hired an agency to help.

Cherie: They are not ashamed of doing this. You pay them and they get it done for you.

Chinese parents aren't the only ones paying the agencies. American universities often pay them commissions for the students they send here. The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point runs an English as a Second Language program. The program paid Shanghai Shenyuan about $700 for Eldon. Some schools pay much more. After he passed a few E.S.L. courses, he enrolled in the university.

Brad Van Den Elzen: As an institution we have a plan to dramatically increase our enrollment. We're looking to over the next five years double our number of international degree seeking undergraduates.

Brad Van Den Elzen is Director of the International Students and Scholars Office at U.W. Stevens Point. He says foreign students bring diversity to the campus. They also bring money. And with states gutting education budgets, universities need new sources of revenue.

Van Den Elzen: Non-resident tuition payers -- whether they're from Illinois or Iowa or Indonesia -- contribute to that revenue stream.

Today there are about 130 Chinese students on campus -- out of a total of 9,500 students. Six years ago there were just 12. But paying commissions for students raises ethical questions. It's illegal to recruit American students that way. When I told Van Den Elzen about the questionable credentials coming out of Shanghai Shenyuan, he wasn't entirely surprised.

Van Den Elzen: It's an open secret in higher education that credentials from China need to be looked at very closely. I'm disappointed to hear that from our friends at Shanghai Shenyuan. We all have to do our due diligence.

Stevens Point promptly ended its partnership with Shanghai Shenyuan. The former employees of the agency said they didn't fake applications for students at U.W. Stevens Point. The university has relatively easy admission standards. So, they sent their worst students there.

Van Den Elzen investigated, and found that in fact more than 15 percent of students from Shenyuan had been suspended from the university for bad grades. Just 3 percent of all international students flunk out in a given year.

Van Den Elzen: Those students would be on the lower end of the admissions scale as a group. But we find that most of them are able to be successful.

The former agents say they did fabricate applications for students who got into several American universities.

Anonymous employee 2: The Ohio State University, Iowa State University, University of Iowa, Michigan State University...

None of those schools pay commissions to Shenyuan for students. Officials at all four told Marketplace they're aware of this type of fraud. Downing Thomas is dean of international programs at the University of Iowa. He says the university recently dismissed four Chinese students for credential fraud.

Downing Thomas: We're doing everything we can to ensure that the students who come to campus are ones who belong here.

But it can be hard to know when a student has worked with an agent. And admissions officials point out that American students get substantial help with their applications too. Jim Miller is former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The group is considering banning its members from paying commissions.

Jim Miller: We can couch our phrases with our interest in having greater cultural engagement on campus, and that is important, but it's the revenue push that pushes it. And we have to be careful not to make decisions that are based on short term gain that have longer-term implications.

College officials say by and large, Chinese students are succeeding at American schools. At U.W. Stevens Point, Eldon is aware his middle-class parents paid a lot of money to send him here.

Eldon: They give me this opportunity to study abroad. I need to -- like -- not just waste money.

Eldon says he's a mediocre student -- he'd rather play computer games or guitar than study. But last semester he did pretty well. A 3.7 GPA out of 4. He's hoping to do better this semester so he can transfer to the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

In Stevens Point, Wisconsin, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: On our website we've got some snapshots of the students Amy talked to. And a blog by Rob Schmitz.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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