Zhicheng “Jacob” Zhang ’16 at work in the art studio. The Nanjing, China, resident chose Colby to pursue his interests in art and chemistry.

When Tianyang “Vera” Zhou ’16 told friends at home in Beijing that she had decided to go to Colby College in the United States, their reaction told her she had some explaining to do. “They were, like, ‘All right. You are going to a college that studies basketball?’ All they know is Kobe [Bryant] from the Lakers. I’m like, ‘No, not really. I don’t play basketball.’”

“It takes a lot of work to explain to them exactly what a liberal arts college is.”

But the word is spreading. And fast.

In China, where Harvard, Yale, and UCLA have long been the only household names of American education, Colby and other liberal arts colleges are making dramatic inroads as more and more Chinese students—and their parents—see the value of a liberal arts education. 

The numbers, in fact, are skyrocketing. From a handful applying to Colby five years ago, there was a steady increase up until last year, when 149 students applied and 11 enrolled in the Class of 2016. This year 231 Chinese students applied, an increase of 55 percent in a general applicant pool that grew by 3 percent.

“It was an incredible bump,” said Hung Bui ’94, associate dean of admissions and financial aid. 

It’s a bump being felt by Colby’s peers, but on Mayflower Hill the increased interest from Chinese applicants is nearly off the chart. Bui said an informal survey of selective liberal arts colleges, including several in NESCAC, showed that applications from China were up an average of 27 percent. At Colby, the number was up nearly 50 percent, Bui said.

Why? Chinese students at Colby point to Colby’s personal touch in recruiting trips to Chinese high schools (Bui has been to China twice in two years with a 12-college group; Steve Thomas, director of admissions and financial aid, makes regular recruiting trips to Asia). They also say there’s a growing awareness of the liberal arts as an alternative to big universities—spreading in large part on social media and websites. Chinese students at small liberal arts colleges in America are taking to the Internet to fill in high schoolers back home. 

“At least my generation, when we’re applying we see this kind of stuff,” said Ronghan “Michelle” Wang ’16, a Presidential Scholar from Shenyang. 

Xueqing “Quincy” Qiao ’16 during a rehearsal of the Colby Chorale. The math major and music minor explores a variety of academic interests.

The “stuff” includes reports from Chinese students who chose what is still seen by many in China as an unconventional path for their education—and are glad they did. Close relationships with professors, small classes, and opportunities to branch out academically and in extracurricular activities are being touted as alternatives to typical experiences at big-name universities.

“Different people have different needs,” said Zhicheng “Jacob” Zhang ’16. Zhang said he would definitely recommend Colby to Chinese students who “have a hard decision like mine.” For Zhang, from Nanjing, the decision was whether to pursue his interest in chemistry or art history. At a university he would have to pick one, but at Colby he is able to study both, he said, and he is considering a double major.

Other Chinese first-years are doing the same. Wang wants to major in psychology and French. Xueqing “Quincy” Qiao ’16, from Beijing, wants to major in mathematics with a music minor (she sings in the Colby Chorale and an a cappella group). Zhou came to Colby because of its strong Environmental Studies Program, but she wants to add a second major in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She will be an orientation leader for incoming first-years next semester. 

Meng “Maggie” Zhao ’16, from Tianjin, is studying psychology but is also interested in theater and this semester was stage manager for a production of Henry IV. “Because I’m here, the most important thing I’ve learned is that I can think for myself,” Zhao said. “I learned how to challenge myself.”

All of these students are extremely well-prepared academically (Wang and Qiao are Presidential Scholars), according to Bui. But they chose the American liberal arts route over the Chinese university system, which they say is more rigid. 

Qiao, the math major, said she had spoken to a friend studying math at prestigious Peking University. “He has five math classes a semester,” she said. “And I’m a math major and I have one or two.” She told her friend how much she enjoyed a philosophy course first semester and he said, “Philosophy? Why are you studying philosophy?” Qiao said. “I don’t want to do math my whole life. I really want to try different things.”

But there were considerable obstacles to taking the liberal arts path, the students said. 

The word “college” roughly translates to a word that means community college in China, so some think a college in America is the equivalent, they said. Also, high schools in China are measured by how many students they place in prestigious Chinese universities. “If they lose their best students to the U.S., they’re not getting the prestige for the school or the principal,” Bui said.

The biggest challenge for recruiters still is the lack of name recognition most American liberal arts colleges have in job-conscious China. Big-name American universities provide a better entrée to a job in China if Chinese students return home with only an undergraduate degree, they said. But in recent years, the Colby students said, students and parents have begun to realize that an undergraduate degree from a college like Colby can lead to a prestigious American graduate school, which translates easily back home.

For Chinese students, as for their American counterparts, the transition to a small liberal arts college isn’t always smooth. Zhang said he felt his English skills held him back at first. And some said they missed the Asian food and shopping malls they enjoyed back home. The long Maine winters, they said, are warmer than winters in parts of China. 

Zhou said Chinese high school students admitted to begin next year had begun asking what they should bring to Colby. “Clothes,” she tells them, “but don’t bring the warm ones. Just get them in Maine. We have L.L. Bean.”