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Problem or Opportunity: Where to Recruit in China?

With a population of the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand combined — plus one billion people- and a population is spread over an area nearly the size of Europe, choosing where to recruit in China can be problematic.

In this post, we will explain ways that institutions can use the Chinese tier-based system of classifying cities to help them decide.

China’s Tier-Based System for Classifying Cities

The tier-based system is used in China to define a city's development. Cities are divided into tier-1, tier-2, tier-3 and tier-4 cities.

More recently, because of the rapid development of several medium-sized cities, a new tier has been added between tier-1 and 2, dubbed “new tier-1” or “tier-1.5” cities.

There are different methodologies for classifying cities into these tiers: from The Wall Street Journal suggesting to count the number of Starbucks to the probably more accurate article written by The South China Morning Post which suggests that GDP, type of political administration, and population define the differences. The South China Morning Post simplifies it into the small chemistry experiment below:

Whichever index you decide to use, the one commonality is wealth: tier-1 cities have higher economic output and incomes than new tier-1, and so on.

Tier-1 cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

New tier-1 cities: Chengdu, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing, Nanjing, Tianjin, Suzhou, Xi'an, Changsha, Shenyang, Qingdao, Zhengzhou, Dalian, Dongguan and Ningbo.

Other cities of note include: the tier-2 cities of Xiamen, Wuxi, Kunming, Shijiazhuang, Nanning; and tier-3 cities of: Guilin, Sanya, Lijiang, Putian and Lianyungang.

Using the Tier System to Find Opportunities

First, let's look in a fairly simplistic way at how we can use the tiers to divide the market and find student recruitment opportunities. For this, we need to make the assumption that tier-1 cities, given they are wealthier, receive more attention from other international institutions than new tier-1, and new tier-1 receive more attention than tier-2, and so on.

By looking at the tier-1 cities mentioned above (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen), this assumption is logical. Most recruiters that have visited China have been to at least a couple of these cities to meet students.

Though, naturally, as we move further down the list, it does get a point, probably somewhere between Putian and Lianyungang, where our assumption fails. These cities get little or no direct attention from international institutions due to lack of international awareness.

Given that the assumption stands for tier-1, new tier-1 and tier-2 cities we can now look at combining some data to find assumptions. Shorelight Education has created a graph here showing international student outflow from China's biggest feeder cities. Though the data is a little outdated, if we simply add a colour index to divide each cities by tier we can see some interesting results.

Tiers based on Baidu: 中国城市新分级名单.

At the top of the list, we see the education expo hot spots of Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Though you will see Nanjing in third with 10,000 students (more than Colombia and Qatar combined) going to the US. Though relatively close to Shanghai this represents an opportunity to institutions looking to recruit in a less competitive environment than the tier-1 cities..

Similarly, Shenyang represents the same type of opportunity. It's history as a hub for the coal and steel industry means that it may not be developing as well as other cities now but still has the resources needed to send students abroad. It's location, in the north east of China, also means that it receives a lot less attention from the outside world than those cities based along the east coast due to ease of access.

If we look further down towards the bottom of our list, we come to Jinan, a tier-2 city, which has around 3,000 international students going to the US. This is more than a number of better developed, more competitive new tier-1 cities. This type of opportunity might appeal to institutions which struggle to gain a solid competitive advantage recruiting in China's biggest cities, such as high schools or lesser known universities.


Given China's size, institutions could look at Chinese student recruitment as either a challenge or an opportunity. At first glance it truly is a challenge, but using data in meaningful ways to compare cities it a good place to start. Comparing an institutions’ characteristics to a city's studying abroad trends and international competition can help when making important decisions. These decisions could include where to travel or with whom to partner in China moving forward.

If you enjoyed this article, we will do a follow up article with suggestions on how to implement these methodologies into Chinese student recruitment looking in particular at using your institutions’ characteristics to appeal to the right students.

In the meantime, you may also enjoy this article written by Sifan Liu and Joseph Parilla at Brookings describing a different method of Chinese city segmentation.

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