LOS ANGELES – Wealthy Chinese undergraduates aren't the only ones looking to get a college degree in the U.S. So are a growing number of Chinese students from lower middle-class families who are enrolling in community colleges.
The number of Chinese students in U.S. community colleges has increased from 2,500 in 2007 to more than 16,200, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Many are searching for an alternative to China's high-pressure and overcrowded educational system.
Thousands of Chinese students from affluent families enroll in U.S. colleges each year. But for every Chinese student who shows up with unimaginable wealth, there are several who are struggling financially, said Amy Yan, assistant director of the international student center at Pasadena City College.
"It is a stereotype that all Chinese students are rich and have (Mercedes) Benzes and Bentleys. It's just not true," she said. "It's just that the rich students show off more."
According to a 2014 report by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., nearly half of the 20,000 students from China studying in LA County attended community colleges.
In China, intermediary agencies are marketing U.S. community colleges as a stepping stone to a four-year university.
"It used to be that only the top students could come to the U.S.," Michael Wan, chief executive of the Irvine-based Wenmei Education Consulting Group, told the newspaper. "Now, anybody with money can come."
Some in academia worry community colleges are not equipped to handle the growing number of international students. University of California regents voted earlier this year to cap the number of out-of-state and international students at UCLA and UC Berkeley.
Meanwhile, supporters note foreign students contribute billions to the U.S. economy and expose students to other cultures and help them build international networks.
Chinese students say they are attracted to the freedom the U.S. educational system offers in comparison to their country's more rigid approach.
Lantian Xiang, the only child of two white-collar workers from Hunan Province, said he found the pressure of taking the Chinese college entrance exam stifling. He ended up attending Pasadena City College and is now a third-year financial actuarial mathematics major at UCLA.
"I wanted to have an experience in a foreign country," said Xiang, 22. "And I wanted to figure out what my heart wanted."