Lure of Chinese Tuition Squeezes Out Asian-American Students

Kwanhyun Park, the 18-year-old son of Korean immigrants, spent four years at Beverly Hills High School earning the straight As and high test scores he thought would get him into the University of California, San Diego. They weren’t enough.

The sought-after school, half a mile from the Pacific Ocean, admitted 1,460 fewer California residents this year to accept higher-paying students from out-of-state, many from China.

“I was shocked,” said Park, who also was rejected from four other UC schools, including the top-ranked campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles, even with a 4.0 grade-point average and an SAT score above the UC San Diego average. “I took it terribly. I felt like I was doing well and I failed.”

The University of California system, rocked by budget cuts, is enrolling record numbers of out-of-state and international students, who pay almost twice that of in-state residents. Among those being squeezed out: high-achieving Asian-Americans, many of them children of immigrants, who for decades flocked to the state’s elite public colleges to move up the economic ladder.

In 2009, University of California administrators told the San Diego campus to reduce its number of in-state freshmen by 500 to about 3,400 and fill the spots with out-of-state and international students, said Mae Brown, the school’s admissions director. California residents pay $13,234 in annual tuition while nonresidents pay $22,878.

12-Fold Surge

As a result, almost 200 freshmen from China enrolled in 2011, up from 16 in 2009, a 12-fold increase. At the same time, the number of Asian-American Californians enrolled fell 29 percent to 1,230, from 1,723 in 2009. The 2009 figure is from the UC system’s office because San Diego didn’t have it available.

While the San Diego campus is accepting more Chinese students, the decline in Asian-American enrollment may be a result of the total drop in California resident admissions, and two years’ data doesn’t reflect a trend, said Christine Clark, a university spokeswoman.

“UC San Diego is committed to admitting and enrolling talented students from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds,” Clark said in an e-mailed statement.

Asian-American students fighting to distinguish themselves to college admissions officers now have to go up against Asians from overseas, said Casey Chang, a Chinese-American senior at Claremont High School in Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. He said he has a 4.7 grade-point average and is applying to the San Diego campus for a joint undergraduate/medical-school program.

One in Five

“We’re all competing for the same goal, and the fact that they’re international makes them that much more interesting to the UCs,” Chang said.

One in five international students nationwide, or 57,000 undergraduates, came from China in 2010-11, a 43 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Institute of International Education in Washington. Colleges are more frequently tapping this pool as the surge in middle-class incomes in China coincides with steep budget cuts at U.S. state universities.

UC San Diego received $227 million from the state in the 2011-12 academic year, down from $301 million in 2007-08. Funding for the nine other University of California campuses dropped as well.

Helping to Pay

“The state is not a fully reliable partner in funding anymore,” said Scott Waugh, the provost at UCLA, where foreign enrollments have quadrupled since 2009. “If we’re going to give California residents the education they want and deserve, we need non-Californians to help pay for it.”

UCLA is increasing the size of its student body to accommodate more nonresidents, said Janina Montero, vice chancellor for student affairs.

Asian-Americans already are being displaced by University of California admissions policies that give preference to first-generation college students. The guidelines benefit low-income Latino and African-American students over middle-income Asian-Americans whose parents went to college, said Mitchell Chang, an education professor at UCLA.

“When you add this new trend on top of the political shifts, you might have a double whammy that tends to disadvantage Asian-Americans,” Chang said.

California students and their parents, Asian-Americans and others, say they’re fighting an uphill battle to enter schools that were established to provide them with an affordable education.

‘Taken Away’

Veronica Zavala’s son Brandon is a senior at Diamond Bar High School, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. As an A student and the son of taxpayers and a state employee -- Brandon’s father is a prison guard -- he should be able to attend a University of California school, she said.

“There’s no reason why someone from another country should come and take my son’s spot,” Zavala said.

U.S. universities are expanding their ties to China and increasingly looking to China for financial support. At least a dozen private and public colleges are opening Chinese campuses with funding from Chinese municipalities. A Chinese government affiliate has spent millions of dollars to establish Confucius Institutes for Chinese language and culture at 75 American schools, including UCLA.

UCLA has received Chinese funding for its Confucius Institute since 2007, with the most recent grant of $320,000 for teacher training in Mandarin and for studying ways to integrate Eastern and Western medicine, according to the university.

The University of California’s state appropriation has been cut 28 percent -- almost $1 billion -- since 2007-08 and faces a midyear $100 million cut this year.

Enrollment of Chinese and other international students are surging at state universities across the U.S.

Washington, Michigan State

At the University of Washington in Seattle, the number of in-state students in the freshman class declined by almost 500 between 2007 and 2011, even as the school enrolled more total students. The percentage of out-of-state students surged to 34 percent of the freshman class from 19 percent over that same period, with more than half from overseas. Almost two-thirds of the international students are from China.

Washington residents pay $10,346 in tuition and fees while nonresidents pay $27,830.

At Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Chinese undergraduate enrollment soared 23-fold in five years, to 2,217 in 2011 from 94 in 2006. Total international enrollment almost tripled to 3,402 in the period and now makes up close to 10 percent of undergraduates.

Office in Beijing

Michigan State opened an office in Beijing in 2008 to improve recruiting efforts, said James Cotter, director of admissions. Student applications are vetted by the staff in Beijing, he said.

The increase in nonresident students comes as Michigan’s high-school population is expected to decrease 20 percent over two decades, so local students aren’t being squeezed out, Cotter said.

Park, who graduated from Beverly Hills High School in June, thinks he would have been admitted to UC San Diego if it hadn’t reduced the number of slots for California residents. His combined math and verbal SAT score of 1340 exceeded the university’s average of 1233. His older brother was admitted to the school in 2009 with lower test scores, Park said.

“It’s kind of unfair,” said Park, who played volleyball and basketball in high school and took eight advanced placement classes, all with the aim of getting into an elite university. While he dreamed of attending Berkeley, his guidance counselor told him that San Diego was a realistic goal.

“I feel I met the university’s standards to get in,” he said. “I expected to get in.”

‘13th Grade’

Instead, Park is taking classes at Santa Monica College, a two-year community college he once mocked as “13th grade.” He’s reapplying to the UCs this fall as a transfer student.

While it cut in-state freshman enrollment, UC San Diego increased the number of resident transfer students from California community colleges to 2,340 from 1,624 over two years, said Brown, the admissions director.

“The University of California has been the major vehicle for social mobility for the Asian-American community,” said Don Nakanishi, a retired UCLA professor who ran the school’s Asian American Studies Center for 20 years. The campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego are among the most selective public colleges in the U.S., admitting less than 40 percent of all undergraduate applicants.

About 43 percent of all undergraduates at Berkeley are Asian-American, compared with 16 percent at Harvard University and Yale University and 23 percent at Stanford University.

Nonresident Plans

To boost revenue, the University of California system plans to increase nonresident enrollment to 10 percent from 6.6 percent of all undergraduates, said Nathan Brostrom, the University of California’s executive vice president of business operations. Much of that increase will be at Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego, the campuses with the greatest appeal to out-of-state students, he said.

Berkeley enrolled 96 Chinese students in 2010, up from 55 in 2009. In the same period, the number of Asian-American freshmen who enrolled at Berkeley dropped 22 percent to 1,116, the lowest since 1995. Enrollment of white students at Berkeley also fell 29 percent as total admissions of state residents dropped.

While California and other state universities admit foreign students for legitimate educational reasons, some may be abdicating their responsibility to educate their own citizens, said Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

‘Revenue Chasing’

“At what point is this not diversifying the student population and just becomes another form of revenue chasing?” said Callan, who is based in San Jose, California. “We’re in some danger of simply taking whoever can pay the most.”

At UC San Diego, Chinese students say they are viewed skeptically by other students who think they’re only there because they pay more, said Zijin Xiao, 20, a freshman from Shenzhen, China.

“They think ‘The foreign students, they admit some who are not fit, maybe they’re not good at academics,’” Xiao said. “It makes me upset.”

She and fellow Chinese students say they are comforted by the large number of their compatriots at the university, which makes the transition to a new country easier.

Xiaojing Pang, 22, a communications major from Guangdong province who goes by Celia, said the cost of San Diego’s tuition is a burden, though she understands the tradeoff.

“I need the education and they need my money,” she said.

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