Many Chinese students who transfer to US high schools and then subsequently enroll in American colleges often notice a strange dichotomy. After initial difficulties relating to language, many find secondary education in the US to be a breeze compared to the rigorous Chinese curriculum — but only until high school graduation. Once they become college freshmen, the picture is reversed. They encounter a difficulty level that is often unmatched by the university courses in their native country.
Although some like Jin Li, author of the recently released Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West, attribute the gap to difference in cultural values, the students themselves believe that the answer is much simpler than that. In their country, the difference between As and Cs and high school can be the difference between attending university or not getting a higher education at all.
Although a minority of US colleges are extremely selective – and those tend to increasingly be the target of many Chinese applicants – there's typically a school for every achievement level. This is not the case in China. There, the only way to a college diploma is through extreme competition in high school – so much so that families look towards US schools to relieve some of the competitive pressure off their kids.
That is not to say that the culture plays no role at all. According to some students, the difficulty also lies in the learning approach – Chinese schools tend to stress memorization of facts over understanding and application.
Ying "Phoebe" Zhang (CAS'15) says the Chinese have a phrase, "learning machines," for students who pursue top grades out of obedience to demanding parents, and they're not universally celebrated. "For my parents, they don't want me to be a learning machine," she says. "You have to learn how to be a human, how to get along well with others."
According to Yijing Lu, many Chinese students slack off in college because after going through years of pressure in a system that even forbade dating because it was distracting, they welcome the outlet. This assessment is echoed by a number of students interviewed by Rich Barlow for his BU.edu piece.
However, according to many of commenters who chimed in to offer their point of view after publication, it's impossible to base such broad conclusions about the education systems of the two countries based on input from students who have no direct experience with Chinese universities.
This is funny. I did my undergrad in one of the best universities in China. And I went to a high school which is one of the best local high schools in my hometown. Failing the college entrance exam is never the end of the world. Many of my classmates who did poor to enter a good Chinese university got accepted in pretty good US colleges. Actually many wealthy Chinese families always tell their kids not to worry about doing bad in high school study in China or on college entrance exam, because they can always apply to US colleges.