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Seeking Opportunity in China’s Tier II and III Cities: What You Need To Know

1.4 billion. The population of the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand combined make up China’s population in a country spanning almost the entire area of Europe.

In a market this diverse, one size doesn’t fit all - so how can schools tailor their messaging to students with different priorities and values? Segmenting the Chinese market, especially for smaller schools, or those with less brand recognition, is critical for effective student recruitment in China.

China’s Cities: Tiers I to III

China’s 600+ cities are divided into tiers that define a city’s level of development and demographics and can provide a macro understanding of a city’s consumer behaviour. Classification varies based on factors from GDP to population and level of government administration.

These rankings are far from static, mostly due to a surging middle class that grew 64% between 2000 and 2012. This growth is estimated to have 76% of urban households considered middle class in 2022, or 45% of the entire population.

In 2002, 40% of China’s middle class lived in Tier I cities; in 2022 this is expected to drop to 16% as more and more middle-class households move to Tier II and III cities, with Tier III expected to host 31% (an increase from 15% in 2002) of the country’s middle class families by 2022.

Looking forward is critical; a city considered Tier II today could quickly become a Tier I hub. These up-and-coming cities are also home to up-and-coming students with considerable value to bring to campuses and classrooms.

The Effect on International Education

This growth in China’s middle class mirrors the increase in Chinese students looking to study abroad. Once reserved for the children of executives and senior managers, families outside of Tier I cities are becoming more likely to seek out a foreign education.

The economic class of Chinese families sending children abroad, 2014–2017. Source.

Urban families have long been a focus of recruitment efforts due in part to their willingness to invest in education, spending a reported 30% of total household income on education - a shocking number when compared to British families whose education spending accounts for just 2% of household income.

The price of domestic education in China is also rising, meaning students outside of China’s Tier I cities are more likely to pursue seats at smaller, less competitive schools - and for a wider variety of courses.

Using the Tier System in Student Recruitment

As larger schools move towards diversifying source countries, less competitive schools focusing on general international growth can enter the doors opened by existing schools in the Chinese market.

Tier I cities are saturated with recruitment from schools with well-established market footholds. Recruiting in second and third-tier cities means less competition from other foreign institutions for both agents and students. The further schools move from first-tier cities and markets, the more likely they'll be to find students and agents eager to engage.

Understanding Students in China’s Secondary Cities

Many Chinese students will excel on smaller, less-internationalized campuses. A cultural reliance on brand recognition makes communicating this challenging, especially for students in smaller cities that don’t receive the same in-person recruitment attention that Tier I cities do. Institutions can see success in lesser developed markets where students have more realistic expectations of their destination schools; understanding these expectations will help you tailor your messaging accordingly.

Students from secondary cities are slightly more likely to pursue STEM fields, where the most important application factor was found to be program ranking, followed by quality of life, food, and accommodation on campus. In good news for schools in colder climes, location didn’t prove to be a discouraging factor for applicants.

Significant Factors in School Selection, with 1 being the least important, and 8 the most: Source

Successful Recruitment in Second and Third Tier Cities

What your team might see as detriments in Chinese student recruitment can easily become strengths - as long as they’re communicated effectively. Your campus is unique and has a lot to offer:

  • Small class sizes facilitate academic discussion and strong student-professor relationships.

  • Smaller campuses provide a truly “authentic” in-country experience

  • Fewer international students on campus, especially from China, means students will acquire a high-level of English fluency - both academic and day-to-day.

  • On-Campus Atmosphere and Resources: Highlighting the ability to provide programming and support to Chinese students will reassure them that their academic and social success matters.

Pathway and Language Programs as Alternate Routes:

Many Chinese students outside of Tier I cities are happy to add a year or two to their academic careers if it means enrolment in their program of choice. Students in lower-tier cities may have strong TOEFL/IELTS scores, but comparatively weak spoken English. English for Academic Purposes (EAP), Foundation/Pathway programs and transfer partnerships present an opportunity to provide support for students while framing your campus as an alternate route to preferred programs or institutions.

Use the Right Channels:

Students rely heavily on word of mouth and WeChat to seek out first-hand information about schools. 70% of students use their native language to search for information about studying abroad. Ensure they’re getting the best possible information, even if you don’t speak Chinese, on accessible recruitment platforms.

The Bottom Line

There is no one-size-fits-all recruitment strategy in China; segmenting the market is essential to success. With the right messaging, schools can improve recruitment across the country. Understanding the needs and expectations of students and their families from secondary cities means better information for better futures, on campus and beyond.



eduFair China is a free online platform dedicated to international education and recruitment. Its' platform connects millions of Chinese students with first-hand information while helping institutions recruit qualified students digitally. eduFair aims to give students a more empowered, holistic approach to international education so that they can succeed during their journey abroad.

Learn more about how eduFair can help you reach students across China.

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