Sunrise China

Aug 13, 2020

5 min read


In July of 2020, Sunrise International’s Co-Founder David Weeks moderated a panel discussion session at the International Association for College Admission Counselling (International ACAC) 2020 Conference. The panel was titled “More Than Pandas and Terracotta Warriors: Using Data to Understand China’s Tier 2+ Cities”. Panelists included:

  • Francis Miller, the Director of College Counseling at the Xi’an Tie Yi High School’s International Curriculum Center in Shaanxi.
  • Panetha Ott, the Director of Admission for International Recruitment at Brown University.
  • Yuan “Cindy” Zhao, a college counselor for the International Division of the Urumqi Bayi High School in Xinjiang.

We were particularly proud of the diverse panel and the conversation that we had, sparked by a data-driven approach to understanding popular sources of information and study abroad preferences amongst students in China’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities!

The conversation began with a review of a recent study Sunrise conducted during its Fall 2019 China recruitment tours, a survey of nearly 3,000 students from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities across China; this, in itself, is exceptional, as systematic polls of high school students from these cities is rare. Students in China’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities aren’t a major focus for many admissions offices, either because of travel complications or outdated notions of these cities as backward. But nothing could be further from the truth, and just as Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities are the up-and-coming economic powerhouses of China, the students that fill them have so much potential to bring to colleges and universities across the globe. This is why Sunrise surveyed them, asking about what they looked for in a college, how they searched, and what they planned to major in, the answer to which people always assume is STEM but no one ever actually asks. Some of the survey results were surprising:

  • 70% of students primarily use Chinese to search for information about study overseas, suggesting the need for a Chinese website.
  • Comparing 10 information sources, students trusted college fairs and in-school counselling centers far more than any other source of information (respectively, 26% and 16% more than average), suggesting the need to visit schools and attend fairs or recruitment tours often.
  • Students seemed to recognize that the quality of information on Chinese search engines isn’t as reliable, but they reported frequently using Chinese search engines and Wechat to learn about study overseas, even more than using agents or word of mouth!
  • 15% of students said they were interested in art and design, far higher than expected!
  • Of 8 criteria that students look for in a university, the most important feature of a school was the program ranking (791 students ranked this as the #1 factor), with the quality of dorms and food on campus as the #2 criterion (with 578 top votes). Surprisingly, location, climate, and cost didn’t weigh heavily on students, with none of these getting more than 200 top votes.

This was just the beginning of the broadcast. The second half brought together the experience of second and third tier city college counselors, a college admissions officer, and a college fair and educational program organizer for a discussion. Ms. Zhao was the first college counselor from Xinjiang to ever speak at the event. She discussed the unique challenges of being a student in Urumqi, the lack of access to college fairs or traditional recruitment, and the difficulty of living over a thousand miles from the nearest testing center or clinic with authority to make medical evaluations for visas. She spoke of the lack of access to college fairs or traditional recruitment. Mr. Miller talked about pushing his students to search for schools in English but acknowledging Chinese language resources are essential; he was overjoyed to see the survey reflect how discerning second and third tier high school students are when determining whether or not to trust a source in the college search, whether that’s an official WeChat account or word-of-mouth. Panetha Ott, the admissions officer of the group, was steadfast in her condemnation of colleges’ and universities’ allowing Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities to get lost in the process, and she reiterated that these students are important, that they have a lot to offer, and that it is the responsibility of educational institutions to make themselves available so that they can find their way safely and honestly.

This kind of data driven look at the college search landscape is rare, and a conversation amongst so many stakeholders in the college recruitment process even rarer. There is a lot to learn from what was said, from the intricate hierarchy of what matters to prospective college students to the still-to-be-addressed problem of password sharing, but the answer is ultimately what we’ve always known. Reach out to these students, by visiting their cities, or using the platforms that they use to discover information about college — you won’t be sorry.

Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can help, or if you’d like a copy of the presentation! And of course, this research is just one of many reports that Sunrise makes available for free, on topics ranging from China’s international schools, trends in digital recruitment tools in China, and the latest on China’s gaokao exam.