This is a best prospect industry sector for this country. Includes a market overview and trade data.
Last Published: 3/15/2019

UNESCO Student Mobility Number China has 869,387 students studying abroad according to UNESCO
CIA World Factbook -29.54 % of China’s population is under 24 years of age.
 U.S. colleges and universities remain the preferred overseas destination for students from China. According to the 2018 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange (Open Doors Report), the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. increased during the 2017-2018 academic year from 350,755 to 363,341, constituting a 3.6 percent increase from the previous academic year. For the 9th year in a row, China remains the leading country of origin for foreign students studying in the U.S., comprising 33.2 percent of all international students studying in the U.S. In 2016, Chinese students studying at U.S. universities and colleges contributed US12.55 billion to the economy.

According to the Open Doors Report, in 2017-2018, 40.9 percent of Chinese students studying in the U.S. are at the undergraduate level, while 36 percent of the Chinese students are at the graduate level, and 18.1 percent were completing Optional Practical Training (OPT).  Due to increased competition from other countries, the number of Chinese students taking non-degree programs fell by 7.7 percent.

Despite reported strains in the U.S.-China relationship and growing fears that U.S. student visa policy could change and make it more difficult for some Chinese students to study in the U.S., the pool of potential foreign exchange students is growing, and U.S. colleges remain the gold standard in higher education. 

Higher Education
In the 2017/18 academic year, 279,436 undergraduate and graduate students from China studied in the United States for higher education, a 3 percent growth over the previous academic year. China continued to be the leading country of origin for international students in the United States.

For Chinese undergraduate and graduate students, Business/Management is the most popular subject with 20.7 percent of Chinese international students majoring in that subject, followed by 19 percent in Engineering, 17.2 percent in Math and Computer Science, 8.4 percent in Physical and Life Sciences, 8.4 percent in Social Sciences, 6.6 percent in Fine & Applied Arts, and the rest in other subjects.  Although most Chinese students in US higher education institutions are studying STEM and Business Management, foreign languages, literature studies, and education are emerging fields of study gaining popularity.[i]

While Chinese students’ demand for overseas study continues to be strong, U.S. universities and colleges must compete to attract students from China.  First, the China market is highly brand-conscious and places strong emphasis on school rankings.  This makes it very challenging for lesser-known American schools to attract and recruit students.

Second, in recent years Chinese students have expressed concerns about studying in the U.S. in terms of personal safety, challenges of obtaining a student visa, and opportunities for post-graduate employment.  Because of these concerns, students have expressed increased interest in enrolling in educational institutions outside of the U.S.

Third, compared to ten years ago, the number of U.S. and foreign universities and colleges for Chinese students to consider has increased. Besides the United States, many other countries are also actively promoting educational opportunities to Chinese students.  For example, the U.K. and Australia offer study programs on a shorter-term schedule, more affordable tuition and fees, and better options for after-graduation employment.  As a result, these two countries are becoming increasingly popular destinations for Chinese international students.
In the 2017/18 academic year, 148,594 Chinese students studied in the U.S. for the undergraduate program, a 4 percent increase over the last academic year. 

There are three main cooperation models for undergraduate study programs between U.S. and Chinese universities:

  • “2+2” or “3+1” programs are collaborative programs between a Chinese and U.S. university, in which students receive a U.S. degree or a dual degree from both universities.  When students are enrolled in a Chinese university, under the 2+2 program, students would spend the first two years of a four-year bachelor’s degree program in a Chinese university and the last two years in a U.S. university. Under the 3+1 program, students would spend the first three years in a Chinese university and the last year in an American university.
  • U.S. and Chinese universities set up a joint institute/department for certain majors in a Chinese university.  In this arrangement, Chinese students can study on both the Chinese and U.S. campuses and earn a dual degree from both universities or from just the Chinese university, depending on the specific program.
  • The U.S. university builds an overseas campus in China by partnering with a Chinese university.  In this plan, Chinese students can study and receive a U.S.-style education in China and earn an American university degree. There also is growing demand from Chinese high school students for short-term summer/winter programs, sometimes offered by American universities.  Those programs are designed to let students experience an academic environment at a U.S. university and enhance their leadership, problem-solving, and other soft skills.  By participating in these programs, students hope to be better prepared if they later apply for a U.S. university. 
 Given the growing competition in China’s education market, lesser known U.S. universities and colleges should take steps to actively demonstrate their unique advantages when recruiting Chinese students.  Those advantages could be location of the education institution (such as a metropolitan area with many potential internship or employment opportunities), lower tuition and living costs, or unique academic programs (such as ones that enable course credit transfers).   
Community College
In the 2017/18 academic year, 18,723 students from China studied at U.S. community colleges. Accounting for 19.8 percent of all international students, China was the top country of origin of international students at those colleges.  U.S. community colleges have increased in popularity and received a high level of acceptance among Chinese international students for several key reasons: community colleges require fewer prerequisites for admission, have more affordable tuition and fees, and most importantly, offer credits recognized by many well-known four-year U.S. universities.  Community colleges offer an affordable way to complete an associate degree, and many Chinese students see community colleges as an effective stepping stone for gaining entry into American universities.
Liberal Arts
By 2016, Chinese student enrollment in fine and applied arts programs in the U.S. had more than tripled.  Fine and applied arts programs experienced a much faster rate of growth when compared to the traditional leading fields of study such as engineering, business and management, math and computer science.  Nearly 900,000 Chinese students take the national college entrance exam for fine arts every year.  However, acceptance rates at Chinese universities are very low.  For example, in 2015, the Beijing Film Academy had an acceptance rate of 2 percent and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts had an acceptance rate of 10 percent.  This leaves many students unable to pursue fine and applied art studies in China, and these students often consider going abroad to study.
Graduate Education
During the 2017-18 academic year, China continued to be the largest country of origin for international graduate students studying at U.S. higher education institutions.[ii]  Engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, and business remain the most popular fields of study in terms of both number of graduate applications from China and first-time enrollment of Chinese graduate students.[iii]  In the 2017-18 academic year, there were 130,843 Chinese international graduate students studying in the United States, which represents a 2 percent increase from the previous year.
According to the White Paper on Career Development to Chinese Students in the United States, more and more students are choosing to obtain their master’s degree in the United States, after completing their undergraduate studies in China.[iv]  This is an indication that the Chinese government’s commitment to improving the quality of education under China’s 23th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) is improving to the point that Chinese students may no longer feel that there is a competitive advantage to having a foreign undergraduate degree in order to find employment in China.

For years, Chinese students studying abroad often stayed on to work after graduating. In 2013, the National Science Foundation found that more than 9 in 10 Chinese students graduating from U.S. higher education institutions with their PhDs remained in the U.S. on average for five years after graduating. These students have long been prized by Chinese companies, for both the quality of their education and their experience of living overseas. These students are now being drawn back to China by opportunities in offered by the Chinese economy, especially in the tech sector.[v]

It is projected that over the next four years, the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. will grow by 11 percent.  To realize these gains, universities and colleges must adapt their recruitment strategies to meet the educational needs and expectations of the Chinese graduate students.
Preschool Education
In 2015, China switched from a one-child family planning policy to a two-child family planning policy. Chinese couples are now permitted by the government to have up to two children. Assuming that the shift achieves its policy goals, population and demand for quality early childhood education will increase.  The preschool education market in China has been growing quickly the past few years. Estimates predict that by 2020, the preschool market value will reach RMB540 billion ($79 billion) from RMB380 billion ($56 billion) in 2016.[vi]

As reported in the Sina Education 2017 White Paper of Chinese Household Spending in Education, families with kids ages 0-6 spend over 20 percent of their annual income on early childhood education.  This drives a booming business for a variety of products and services targeting this age group and even babies in the womb.  Online content for parent-and-children joint activities, formative English learning, child education, and parenting are among the most popular.  Offline, early childhood and day care centers spring up daily and are commonly pursued by investors. 

In China, primary and secondary education services are dominated by the state. Preschool services, however, are primarily provided by non-state institutions.  For instance, currently over 60 percent of kindergarten schools in China are run by private education providers. Statistics show that currently the top 5 kindergarten operators occupy 2 percent of market share.  The rest of the market is fragmented with numerous players.  Common challenges for this market include a lack of relevant laws and regulations, shortage of qualified teachers, and low industry standards. 
Primary and Secondary Education
China was known for its rigid National Entrance Examination (Gaokao) system where exam scores were used as the most important and often the only criteria for universities to select students.  As a result, the afterschool tutoring business focused on helping students obtain a higher Gaokao score, and this business model proved wildly successful.  According to the Sullivan Report, the K-12 education market value reached RMB 393 billion in 2017.  A Sina Education report estimates that 68 percent of the student population use after-school tutoring programs in tier I cities, 63 percent in tier II and 50 percent in tier III and IV cities.

Over the years, the Gaokao has become more comprehensive and well-rounded. The Chinese Ministry of Education has released measures to reduce student stress (e.g. ranking students, releasing graduation scores for marketing purposes, and using competitive accolades as a criterion for admission to secondary school).  The changing philosophy of the Gaokao creates opportunities and challenges for tutoring businesses.  As emphasis shifts away from exam preparation, traditional exam prep schools must adapt.  Currently the after school tutoring market is quite fragmented, where the top five tutoring businesses hold less than 5 percent of market share.  Numerous small-and medium-sized tutoring businesses exist with little to no oversight or quality control from the government.  In addition to reforming the Gaokao, the government is starting to focus on tightening regulations with the hope of removing unqualified players and raising the bar for new businesses. 
A popular industry report, the JieMoDui annual blue paper on the education industry, forecasts that current national and regional players in the after-school tutoring market will benefit from new government regulations and experience steady growth in the next 2-3 years. Second, the K-12 private education providers are expected to complement the public education system, but the education culture must shift from exam-oriented curriculum to a well-rounded one.  Thirdly, competence-oriented education for specific academic subjects will be in greater demand. Since the assessment metric for each Gaokao subject will be more balanced, the demand for developing critical thinking, presentation, and communication skills is increasing. Fourthly, traditional public schools and small and medium-sized education providers need to upgrade their operations. Demand for improvements is leading to new business-to-business opportunities for leading education businesses capable of providing one-stop solutions, including teacher training, technology products, content, and operation plans to public school or private sector businesses. 

Along with public schools, both private school and international school/programs realized double digit growth during the past 5 to 10 years.  The recently released Non-State Education Promotion Law is interpreted as a positive signal for encouraging international education business development in non-compulsory education segments such as preschool, senior high school, vocational and higher education. So far only a few U.S. schools have a footprint in China.  One model involves joint programing thats between two middle schools that confers students a dual degree upon graduation.  Another model includes running a joint program with 5 campuses offering a full K-12 curriculum. This sector shows promise considering the strength of U.S.-branded institutions in China.
Technical and Vocational Education
In China, technical and vocation education is offered by vocational schools and professional training institutions.
China has the world’s largest vocational education system, with about 12,300 colleges enrolling 27 million students. Despite the high number of vocational schools, the Chinese government is concerned about the ability of vocational schools to meet demand for skilled workers. The shortage of skilled workers is due in part to the lack of qualified teachers. The Chinese government is aware of the need to upgrade the skills and education of its workforce and is investing heavily in vocational education to bridge the gap. However, China needs foreign investment to bridge the shortfall, which explains why vocational education is the only education sub-sector completely open to FDI.[vii]

Vocational and technical education in China continues to carry a stigma for being less prestigious than attending a four-year university. Therefore, U.S. institutions interested in entering the Chinese market should highlight both the quality of their programs and that the skills that are being taught are the most current, so that Chinese students are well equipped to compete in a the high-skilled manufacturing and services sectors.[viii]

There are two types of vocational schools in China: secondary (Grade 9-12) and tertiary (quasi-college). Most of them are public and rely on government funds. The schools in coastal cities generally perform better than those in inland cities. The top challenges that China’s vocational schools face are outdated curriculums and low public perception. Partnering with foreign counterparts had been considered a fast track to addressing both issues. After a few years, however, some joint programs still have not met the goals and expectations from both Chinese and foreign partners, and China’s vocational schools have become more cautious about the simple import of foreign curriculum or partners. As a result, Chinese vocational schools are starting to more carefully scrutinize the compatibility of foreign models. Nonetheless, most vocational schools are very open to partnership with foreign vocational schools.
Professional Training Services
Both the enthusiasm of private capital and soaring industrial demand are spurring the growth of professional training institutions, particularly in senior care and general aviation.  According to a July 2017 report titled Increase and Shortage – Status of China Senior Care Talents Training 2017, China needs 10 million senior care providers, but currently only has 1 million practitioners, among which only one-third were qualified, and one-tenth were officially registered care providers. In the aviation space, according to a general aviation report titled Report on General Aviation Development 2016-2017, there were less than 3000 certified GA pilots in 2016, while the market demand was 10,000. 
Both senior care and general aviation industries in China are anticipated to develop rapidly in the coming years. Professional training, particularly in senior care and general aviation, are high-potential areas for U.S. training institutions. In addition, online education and other educational technologies will benefit from the tremendous opportunities in China’s evolving technical and vocational education system.

Special Education
In July 2017, the Ministry of Education and six other state agencies released the Program for Promoting Special Education: Phase II (2017-2020), following the Provisions on the Management of Disabled Persons in the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Interim) issued in April. In addition to setting out three priorities, namely completing the special education system, strengthening the institutional assurance for special education, and improving the special education quality, the Program introduced the target of achieving over 95 percent enrollment rate of disabled children in compulsory education.[ix]  This presents unique opportunities for U.S. colleges and universities with highly-regarded special education programs.

Education Technology (EdTech)
Over the last 5 years, China has enjoyed rapid growth in EdTech and online learning sectors. The driving forces include favorable government policies, abundant venture capital, active entrepreneurial activities, increasing consumption, fast-growing mobile internet penetration, and the immense importance that Chinese people attach to education.
The Chinese e-learning market is expected to exceed USD104 billion by 2025, according to a report by UBS Securities. In 2016, both China and the U.S. saw decreased funding volumes and deal numbers for startups. Chinese EdTech startups raised RMB 10.6 billion (USD 1.54 billion) in 2016, compared to the U.S. EdTech startups’ USD 1.03 billion. There are 167 venture deals in China compared to 138 in the U.S. K-12 is still the most active sector in China’s EdTech market, followed by professional skills training and language learning sectors. Although STEM is not in the top 3 by deal volume, there were 28 deals in STEM and STEM ranked third for deal amount.
The U.S. is the clear leader in educational technology worldwide and has proven models of using technology in and outside of the classroom to deliver high quality education. At the recent Global Education Technology Expo in Beijing, one of two notable annual EdTech events in China, American speakers made up 30 percent of total presenters, followed by U.K and Israeli speakers.
The United States continues to be the preferred destination for Chinese students studying abroad.  In 2017, the annual report on Chinese Students’ Overseas Study found that of 6,217 Chinese students planning to study abroad, 50 percent stated that the United States was their top study destination.[x] The motivation for Chinese students to study abroad include: [xi]
  • The belief that students who obtain diplomas from foreign colleges and universities are more competitive than their peers who graduated from a Chinese college or university;
  • Limited places available to study at the premier Chinese universities;
  • Foreign colleges and universities offer a broader/more flexible learning environment that appeals to Chinese students;
  • The opportunity to become more independent;
  • The opportunity to experience new ways of thinking and acting in their field of study;
  • The belief that their chances for an international career are improved with a foreign degree.
China continues to be a challenging market for most U.S. colleges and universities. To maintain competitiveness, U.S. institutions must remain active in the promotion of American education in China, especially as competition for Chinese students from other English-speaking countries (i.e. Canada, UK, and Australia) continues to grow. U.S. colleges and universities who are looking to enter the Chinese market should consider looking at Tier III and Tier IV cities when developing their market entry plan. U.S. colleges and universities will find that students who are from Tier III and Tier IV can afford to study abroad, but also have more balanced expectations of which schools they might be accepted to.[xii]

  • China International Education Exhibition (CIEET);
  • China Education Expo;
  • China Annual Conference for International Education (CACIE)  
  • Global Education Technology (GET) Conference;
  • Global Education Summit;
  • China Education Innovation Expo
  • China Early Childhood Education Conference & Early Childhood Education Resources Expo;
U.S. Commercial Service Contact
Ms. Maggie(Jing) Qiu
Commercial Specialist 
T. +86 10 8531 4157
Ms. Jean (Mengyue) Xu
Commercial Specialist
T. +86 28 85986720
Ms. Veronica Liang
Commercial Specialist (China Education Team Coordinator)
T. +86 20 3814 5630
Ms. Lauren(Yuan) Liu
Senior Commercial Specialist
T. +86 21 62798958
Ms. Andrea Shen
Commercial Specialist
T. +86 24 2322 1198 Ext.8145

Ms. Catherine Le
Commercial Specialist
T. +86 27 8555 7791 Ext. 2811

[i] CCG Annual Report on the Development of Chinese Studying Abroad 2017 (December 18, 2017) Institute of Development at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics and the Social Sciences Academic Press
[ii] Okahana, H., & Zhou, E. (2018). International graduate applications and enrollment: Fall 2017. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools
[iii] Okahana, H., & Zhou, E. (2018). International graduate applications and enrollment: Fall 2017. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools
[iv] White Paper on Career Development of Chinese Students in the United States, 2018. Beijing Study Abroad Service Industry Association.
[v] Increasing number of Chinese graduates returning home from overseas (February 6, 2018). ICEF Monitor
[vi] “How to Invest in China’s Growing Education Subsectors” (March 5, 2018). Dezan Shira and Associates.
[vii] “How to Invest in China’s Growing Education Subsectors” (March 5, 2018). Dezan Shira and Associates
[viii] “How to Invest in China’s Growing Education Subsectors” (March 5, 2018). Dezan Shira and Associates
[ix] Hu, X. (2017, August 4). Over 95 percent of Disabled Minors to Receive Compulsory Education in 2020. People's Daily.
[x] Annual Report on Chinese Students’ Overseas Study (2017) Vision Overseas Consulting and Kantar Millward Brown
[xi] Cheng, Dandan. “Nine Reasons why Chinese Students Choose to Study Abroad” (June 14, 2018). The World University Rankings
[xii] Jennings, Ross. “Student Recruitment in Chin: One Institution’s Insight from Tier II and Tier III Cities
[xii] Annual Report on Chinese Students’ Overseas Study (2017) Vision Overseas Consulting and Kantar Millward Brown
[xii] Cheng, Dandan. “Nine Reasons why Chinese Students Choose to Study Abroad” (June 14, 2018). The World University Rankings
[xii] CCG Annual Report on the Development of Chinese Studying Abroad 2017 (December 18, 2017) Institute of Development at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics and the Social Sciences Academic Press
[xii] CCG Annual Report on the Development of Chinese Studying Abroad 2017 (December 18, 2017) Institute of Development at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics and the Social Sciences Academic Press
[xii] Daxue Consulting “Art schools in China: more and more Chinese Art Students (September 27, 2018).
[xii] Ying, Guao and Wanwe, Zaho. “China’s vocational education bloom with industry integration” (November 14, 2017).
[xii] “How to Invest in China’s Growing Education Subsectors” (March 5, 2018). Dezan Shira and Associates
[xii] China’s Ministry of Education
[xii] Jennings, Ross. “Student Recruitment in Chin: One Institution’s Insight from Tier II and Tier III Cities
[xii] Yu, Cheng. “Online Education Gaining Momentum in China” (August 30, 2018). China Daily
[xii] Asia Times Staff.
[xii] Redden, Elizabeth. “Closures of China-Foreign Programs” (July 11, 2018). Inside Higher Ed
[xii] “China’s Private Education Market Set to Reach $330 billion by 2020” (April 27, 2018)
[xii]“How to Invest in China’s Growing Education Subsectors” (March 5, 2018). Dezan Shira and Associates

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