Increasing affluence and currency appreciation are behind the spike in Chinese students traveling abroad for their undergraduate studies, industry insiders said.
The Ministry of Education last month reported that a record 840,000 high school graduates did not register for the gaokao (university entrance exam) this year.
Those numbers are fueling speculation that this was due to the increasing number of Chinese students wanting to study abroad.
The total number of students traveling abroad to study increased from 144,000 in 2007 to 170,000 last year.
This figure will probably top 200,000 this year, said Feng Jishang, marketing manager of Wiseway, a consulting firm that advises students and their parents about overseas schools.
Years ago, most Chinese students who went abroad would first complete their undergraduate studies in China before applying to an overseas graduate school. But this trend is changing.
According to industry estimates, the proportion of students seeking their first degree abroad has risen to 30 to 50 percent of all overseas-bound students. That means there could be as many as 60,000 to 100,000 such students this year -- triple the number in 2003.
Foreign college campuses are beginning to notice the trend.
A source at the University of San Francisco told China Business Weekly that the campus used to accept three or four Chinese undergraduate students every year.
Today, the number has hit 80, the university source said.
Rapid economic growth, coupled with a currency that has risen by more than 20 percent against the US dollar over the last four years, is making an overseas education more affordable for Chinese students.
That's making US campuses such as the University of San Francisco, or USF, more of a bargain.
"Students used to tell me that they did not have the money to go to USF, and they needed full scholarships. That is not the case now," said Stanley Nel, vice-president of international relations at the San Francisco campus.
Another reason is that there simply aren't enough places in Chinese colleges, especially the higher-rated ones, to satisfy the demand for a university education.
"Four in ten students taking the gaokao won't get university places. Furthermore, of those that do, many don't get into the schools of their choice. That is why more are going abroad," Feng of Wiseway said.
A widespread perception among students is that going overseas for college improves their career prospects, sources said.
"For Chinese students, capability is not a problem, but they need work experience and communication skills," said Alan McNeilly, assistant dean at Teeside University in the United Kingdom.
"If they get a degree overseas, they can expect higher salaries and better positions when they return," McNeilly said.
His university will set up an office in China next month to attract more students, McNeilly added.