BEIJING - Zhao Chunyi, an 18-year-old high school graduate, says she didn't hesitate when she decided to go overseas for undergraduate studies -- in fact, she didn't even bother to take the exam that could have ensured her a seat in the country's most prestigious Peking University.
Zhao, a top student in one of Beijing's best high schools, declined to take the just-concluded national college entrance examination (NCEE), and instead has decided to attend Bowdoin College, a US liberal arts school widely regarded as a member of the country's "Little Ivies." She rejected offers from eight top 30 universities in the United States.
"She usually scores well in exams, so if she had attended the NCEE, she would be very likely be accepted by Peking University," said one of her teachers surnamed Hao.
But Zhao, who describes herself as a "tireless challenge taker, " has long planned to get into a renowned American university, which she believes may help her unleash her full potential.
"Peking University only values how much I score on the NCEE, but Bowdoin values who I am," she said.
Zhao has been studying at the Experimental High School attached to Beijing Normal University, which was set up two years ago exclusively for those who plan to go abroad after graduation.
School data shows that this year all 80 students in the school's two classes have received at least one offer from a top 50 university in the United States and a top 3 university in Canada.
In recent years, similar types of classes have been set up in many top high schools across the country.
According to the US-based Institute of International Education, 39,947 Chinese undergraduates were studying in the United States during the 2009-2010 academic year, up 52 percent from the previous year.
Better Education and Jobs
US universities favor Zhao for her impressive score, 2,240 out of 2,400 on the College Board's SAT, as well as for her active involvement in various extracurricular activities, ranging from a global business plan contest to a campus water conservation campaign, according to Hao.
What attracts Zhao to Bowdoin most is that it promises to provide funding for her to conduct research in any field in which she has a particular.
"The funding, named President and Faculty Prize, is the highest honor for the college's freshmen. It also promises to provide more resources after I launch the program," she said, adding that such generosity for undergraduates might be imaginable in any Chinese university.
Zhao said she didn't ask for the prize, but she suspected it might result from her application essay.
"In the essay, I lashed out at China's exam-oriented schooling and expressed a strong willingness to make a difference," she said.
Besides better educational resources, Zhao and her classmates also expect a diploma from a leading US university to bring them more job opportunities.
In 2010, the average annual salary for college graduates in China was about 25,200 yuan (US$3,890), while the amount for graduates in the US was US$47,637.
If Chinese overseas students decide to seek a job back in China, their education experience will be highly valued, especially by foreign-funded companies.
"Compared with their local peers, the Chinese students who graduate from a renowned foreign university generally have a global view and a better understanding of cross-culture cooperation," said Li Bing, a sales manager with Google China.
Li has just picked out a young Chinese student fresh out of Standford from over 100 people who applied for a summer internship spot in Li's department.
Blow to Chinese Universities
This year, more than 70 students, or 20 percent of the graduates from the renowned high school affiliated with Fudan University in Shanghai, have been accepted by foreign universities. That's about seven times as many as five years ago, said Wu Jian, the school's vice president.
"It has become a growing trend that more and more high school elites are heading overseas to pursue higher education," Wu said.
The declining attraction of Chinese universities showcases their gap with their foreign counterparts, said Kang Liying, deputy director of the Academy of Educational Sciences of the Capital Normal University.
"Currently, not a university in the Chinese mainland has entered into the ranks of the world's 'first-rate' universities," Kang said.
"Chinese universities have apparent shortcomings, such as bureaucracy and academic plagiarism. They also generally lack academic freedom and independent thinking," stated commentator Qi Yue in an article published in The Economic Observer, a Chinese newspaper.
To attract superior high school graduates, the local universities must improve their mechanisms for talent cultivation and scientific research, as well as sharpen their own edges, Kang said.
The NCEE, also known as "gaokao" in Chinese, has been long regarded as a destiny-shaping event for high school students.
However, the number of students registering for the test has dwindled in recent years, from the record 10.5 million in 2008 to 9.3 million this year.
One reason for the decrease is that more students have chosen to study overseas. According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, nearly one million Chinese high school graduates were absent from the NCEE last year, about 20 percent of which had decided to study abroad.