Recruiting Chinese Students

May 2010. This week, Colorado State University's vice provost for international affairs spoke to the media about his intent to see the number of Chinese students enrolled in the Fort Collins, Colorado campus double during the next two years. This mirrors similar commitments, aspirational statements, and recruiting plans at other institutions across the US, in the wake of growing demand in China for overseas education. However, few colleges and universities in the US have developed a strong tradition of marketing to Chinese students.

In a recent conversation with Academic Impressions, Tom Melcher, chairman of Zinch China (an entity that offers services to assist Chinese families with college choice and helps admissions officers in the US identify their best-fit Chinese candidates), offered practical advice for how institutions new to recruiting in the Chinese market can:

  • Define their target audience carefully
  • Define their specific competitive advantage
  • Focus dollars and effort on initiatives that are likely to work, while not wasting time on efforts that likely will not work

Target a Specific Chinese Market

Melcher suggests that these three questions are critical to targeting your recruiting effort:

  • Which Chinese language will you market in?
  • Where will you set your minimum TOEFL score?
  • What is your position on financial aid for international students?

First, Melcher warns that Chinese is not a single language, and you need to be very clear whether you are recruiting students from Hong Kong or Taiwan, or from the mainland. "Hong Kong and Taiwan read and speak a different language from the mainland," Melcher advises, "with more complex characters. The two languages are more different than the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish spoken in Mexico, which at least are the same written language." It is critical to make sure your marketing materials are in the right language for the right audience. It is not enough to simply locate a faculty member who is Chinese to translate your materials. A faculty member from Taiwan may translate your message perfectly, but if you are recruiting mainland students, many will not be able to read your materials. Even those students who can understand what the written materials are saying will get the message that your institution does not understand them and is not even approaching them in their own language. "I have seen a lot of colleges do this," Melcher cautions.


Where you set your minimum TOEFL score for applicants affects how your institution is perceived in the Chinese market. Most colleges set their minimum TOEFL at around 80, while the Ivy League sets the TOEFL at 100. Melcher notes:

  • The higher the TOEFL score, the fewer the pool of students to recruit from
  • The higher a student's TOEFL score, the more exceptional the student's profile is likely to be (and the more likely that the parents will have a strong expectation for the student to attend a school that is ranked in the top 10)

Every college is trying to compete for those top TOEFL students. Melcher warns that if you are a small liberal arts college without a strong ESL program, and you feel unprepared to address the needs of ESL students therefore only want the top 20% of the TOEFL pyramid, you are competing with every other college in the US for a limited pool of applicants.

Instead, Melcher advises aiming low on the TOEFL. "Aim as low as you can. Go ahead and add an ESL program, invest in the support, and charge for the ESL offering. Chinese parents sending students overseas have money; the extra cost to them is not an issue."

"If you aim low on the TOEFL score and charge for an ESL program, you will be competitively stronger."
Tom Melcher, Zinch China

Financial Aid

"Be very, very explicit about whether you will or will not offer financial aid to international applicants," Melcher advises, noting that many colleges will want to refrain from offering aid to international students. The important thing is to be clear on this with potential applicants. "In China, it is perfectly OK to position a college as offering a fabulous program that fits exactly what the applicant is looking for and has no financial aid. At the undergraduate level, you will not see a drop in applications if you do not offer financial aid." While this is counterintuitive, Melcher explains that undergraduate students in China who are applying overseas come from the top 1% of China's wealth. For the most part, students applying overseas are not lower-income students, and the perception in China is that the overseas market, while growing fast, is reserved for the most affluent. (For graduate admissions, this is not the case, as most undergraduates in China dream of going overseas for graduate school.)

"Don't sound apologetic for not offering financial aid. Convey that your school is looking for upscale, financially successful families from overseas. That is aspirational; everyone wants to be considered a member of an upscale, financially successful family."
Tom Melcher, Zinch China

Define Your Competitive Advantage

There is a wide array of factors that influence college choice for American students; this is not the case in China. As a rule, only a very few factors affect college choice for Chinese families considering an overseas education. The top three, Melcher advises, are:

  • Brand awareness
  • Rankings (National Universities and secondly, US News & World Report)
  • Safety (in China, the US is perceived as a very unsafe place)

"Don't waste time in your marketing materials on items they don't care about. Not to compare education to cars, but this would be analogous to arriving at a car dealership intending to make your choice based on fuel economy and safety, and finding that the car dealer is going on and on about the color and the upholstery."
Tom Melcher, Zinch China

"A lot of what you might intend to talk about -- your campus's bucolic setting, your 150-year history, your embrace of progressive education, your recreational facilities and dining options -- are irrelevant to the Chinese. Rely on numbers and statistics," Melcher advises, "these matter."

What if you are a small rural college not ranked in US News? In that case, cite statistics you feel are relevant, and educate your audience as to why they are relevant. Perhaps your program was highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the most innovative in its field. Perhaps your college has the third highest ranked engineering program in the Midwest. Perhaps your college is ranked fourth in a key program among peer institutions of its size. "If you have a phenomenal safety record," Melcher adds, "talk about that, and draw comparisons." For example, if your college is rural and has averaged only a certain number of serious criminal incidents per year, compare that to an average number of incidents at large urban universities. Use statistics, and explain their significance.

Focus on What Works, Avoid What Doesn't

Here's what not to invest in:

  • Visits to postsecondary institutions in China
  • An expensive website for marketing to Chinese students

While school visits and targeted landing pages often work in the US, they do not work in China. In China, postsecondary institutions for local Chinese students will not let you in the door. "They do not want their best and brightest to go overseas," Melcher warns. "They will hang up the phone on you. They hang up on the Ivies."

Landing pages with flash, video, and social media tie-ins work in the US because in the US the student is often the decision-maker. In China, Melcher advises, the decision-maker is the parent. This is a critical point to consider. Melcher describes the cultural difference in this way: "Chinese parents make American helicopter parents look laid-back. From an American point of view, the Chinese parent is absurdly over-involved. From a Chinese point of view, the American parent is dangerously irresponsible. The cultural norm is to consider a 17-year-old Chinese student not yet capable of managing a decision as important as their college education."

The market you need to direct your message to is the Chinese parent. This audience may use email and may surf the web, but they are not going to be invested in social media or online video. But they are also not going to be interested by a traditional viewbook. Melcher suggests that a relatively low-cost and more effective means of reaching Chinese parents is to provide a one-page PDF handout that the parent can print and read.

"Create a marketing brochure in the right version of Chinese, targeted at a Chinese parent, which is designed to be printed and hits on your key selling points with a very targeted, very specific message."
Tom Melcher, Zinch China

The other investment that is worth making, Melcher suggests, is to send a recruiter to one of China's two annual education fairs (one is in October, the other in April). "These typically involve a five-city tour, they are funded by the government, and they are enormous. Fifty thousand people may come in a day. This is a great way to get the word out about your college, and a great way for admissions officers to interact with hundreds of families and get a very visceral sense of what the market is like." This is a major investment -- $4,000 for a booth, plus the costs of travel and a week out of the office -- but Melcher advises that it is the best way for a college that is serious about recruiting from China to get "a foot in the door."