Three Waves of Chinese Students since 1999

3 waves of Chinese students by

(Originally published in Global Times, co-authored by co-founders of

As the Chinese economy matures and evolves to a steadier growth pace, the mobility patterns and profile of future Chinese students will also assume new characteristics. Undoubtedly, given the size and scale of the new wealth in China, the demand for education abroad will continue to be strong.

With more than 304,040 Chinese students enrolled in the US in 2014/15, China is by far the leading source of international students at American universities and colleges.

In the last 15 years, there have been three primary waves of growth in Chinese students in the US.

Wave 1: Hai Gui “Sea Turtles”

Chinese students of 1999-2006 were academically ambitious students who primarily enrolled at the graduate level.  In 2006, 71 percent of Chinese students were enrolled at the graduate level to earn a master’s or a doctoral degree as compared to 15 percent for an undergraduate degree.

Most of the students in this wave went back to China as “gold-collar” workers or successful entrepreneurs. They were highly educated and were often offered higher salary and generous benefit packages when hired in China. While some of the students in this wave struggled with cultural adaptation in the US, the scarcity of foreign-educated talent created prestigious career advancement opportunities in China. The term hai gui (“sea turtle”) was coined to represent this talent swimming back to the mainland.

Wave 2: Hai Dai “Seaweed”

But after 2007 there was a dramatic growth in Chinese students studying in the US, especially at the undergraduate level. The total number increased from 81,127 in 2007 to 304,040 in 2014.

There was a strong motivation among students and families to escape the intense competition of gaokao, the college entrance exam in China. Second, economic growth added financial resources to upper-middle class families who could now afford to send their children abroad. Finally, recession and a decline in domestic enrollment in the US triggered a sense of urgency among many American institutions who wanted full-fee paying overseas students.

Many of the students were not as academically self-directed and prepared as their predecessors. They sought help from agents and consultants. They struggled to integrate on university campuses and faced cultural challenges. Many US institutions were unable or unwilling to match their investment in recruitment with efforts to adapt and expand campus services.

A variety of factors, including increased competition among students, undifferentiated profiles, immigration constraints, tougher economic situation and lack of cultural adaption, made it very challenging for the students to find rewarding career paths back in China or in the US. They were given a new name, hai dai, (“seaweed”), to indicate that an overseas degree no longer guaranteed a prestigious job placement.

Some of them are remaining in the US to continue their education at the master’s level or higher and improve their chances.

Wave 3: Hai Bei “Sea Treasure”

But today we’re seeing students with financial resources starting early to increase their chances of getting admission in elite private institutions. In 2013, 23,500 Chinese students were studying in high schools, making up one-third of all international students enrolled in US high schools. Most are an only child of upper-middle income families in China with solid and steady financial resources. They are the jewels of the family, or hai bei (“sea treasures”).

Students in this wave will live in the US staying far much longer than their predecessors, potentially over a decade just for education. Staying longer in the US will allow students to be more culturally adaptable, however, this will require proactively getting out of their comfort zone to engage in cross-cultural learning opportunities that develop a global mindset and citizenship.

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