Duke University officials reckoned their branch campus in China would get about 1,500 applications for the inaugural class of its undergraduate program.
They thought wrong.
Actually, from China, the U.S. and the rest of the world, “we received 3,143 applications” for slots in the 225-student incoming class, Provost Sally Kornbluth reported to professors who sit on Duke’s Academic Council.
“At the end of the day, we did better than we thought, to be very honest,” added Dennis Simon, the executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, the branch campus that’s based in a suburb of Shanghai. “Now the big problem for us is processing all the applications.”
The other big problem, Kornbluth said, is that Duke and Duke Kunshan officials don’t have a good handle on what percentage of the applicants may actually show up on the China campus this fall if they get an admission offer.
For every university, there’s both an art and science to estimating the potential “yield” of a set of offers, given the inevitability that many students will end up choosing to go to another school. But for Kunshan’s undergraduate program “we haven’t figured out how you work” the estimates yet, Kornbluth said, noting that for the start-up there are more than the usual number of uncertainties.
What is certain is that of the applications in hand, 2,551 are from students in China and the rest are from other countries. Of the international applicants, a majority, 322, are from the U.S., while the remaining 270 are from elsewhere.
After the U.S., the leading sources of applications are Kazakhstan, South Korea, Pakistan and Ethiopia, Kornbluth said.
Kornbluth said Duke officials believe the numbers from Kazakhstan – once a part of the former Soviet Union, now an independent country on China’s northwest border – are a function of the publicity the Durham university has gotten there from its efforts to forge ties with Kazakh institutions.
South Korea and Pakistan are among the countries that are already “sending a large number of students to China” for an advanced education, Simon said. And along with Ethiopia, DKU got applications from “all over Africa,” he said.
Meanwhile, the pattern of applications from the U.S. defied Duke’s expectations that the bulk of the applicants would come from coastal enclaves that often see a lot of students take the advanced placement test in Mandarin and Chinese culture. Instead, “the fact they’re scattered all over the U.S. means they heard about us through digital media,” Simon said.
The U.S. applicants to DKU as a group have the sort of test scores and grades that “look like Duke-quality applications in terms of at least the quantitative data” admissions counselors here use in gauging a prospective student’s case, he said.
For the Chinese applicants, the process will flow from the results of the nationwide gaokao entrance examination that drives admissions to every university in that country.
With that, “we obviously have no idea at this point what kind of yield to expect,” Kornbluth said.
The exam varies by province, and test-takers’ scores are ranked by province. That allows students from less-prosperous parts of the country to compete for slots with students from metro centers like Beijing and Shanghai, she and Simon said.
Going in, “every student will select three schools, and they will start to negotiate once their gaokao score is in,” Simon explained to the Academic Council, Duke’s version of a faculty senate. “We will negotiate with the students to see how many have put DKU as their No. 1 choice. This happens in a space of about a week. They take the exam, wait about a month to get the score and then within a week the rest is decided.”
Duke Kunshan opened in 2014 and up to this year has focused on graduate-level education. The launch of the undergraduate program represents the second phase of the university’s development.
Graduates will earn a joint degree from both DKU and Duke. They’ll spend a good bit of their junior years in Durham, meaning the Duke campus will see an influx of students from DKU starting in the fall of 2020.
The plan calls for the undergraduate program at DKU to serve 2,000 students a year, with 500 arriving each year. The 225-student target for this fall’s first group is part of the phasing-in process. Officials expect about 175 of the students to come from China and the rest from other countries.
The Kunshan project was a source of controversy for Duke while it was in the planning stages, drawing criticism from both alumni and faculty who fretted about both the upfront costs and the specter of working with China’s authoritarian government.
But university leaders defended it staunchly, with former trustees Chairman David Rubenstein once telling the Academic Council it’s the sort of initiative that likely will distinguish great universities from the rest as the world’s economy evolves. Shortly before retiring, former Duke President Richard Brodhead called it a “high-risk, high-reward venture” but also a “carefully calculated gamble” on Duke’s part.
Duke is backing the Kunshan undergraduate program with a $5 million annual subsidy.