The Value of Prestigious American Schools – A Comparison of Research Funding between Chinese and American Universities

October 30 22:42 2018

When we talk about prestigious American universities, we think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Johns Hopkins University. But what makes them prestigious? Quality of education aside, research is one crucial aspect that gives these universities their prestige. Today we, Forward Pathway would like to talk about the value of prestigious American schools by making a horizontal comparison of US universities versus its Chinese counterpart. We will look at two schools specifically; Johns Hopkins University and Tsinghua University. Both schools are ranked first in terms of research funding, and their respective situation could be an overall representation of the distinction in the educational environment from their respective country.

Let’s first take a look at the student population between China and the United States. China’s higher education is already ranked highest in the world. One out of every five college student is attending a Chinese university. However, this is merely at the undergraduate level. According to my research, in 2018, there are currently 27 million undergraduate level students studying in China whereas the US only has 23.5 million. But at the graduate level, China only possess 1.98 million whereas the US has 3.8 million graduate level students. This means that 16.2% of undergraduate US students will continue their education in a graduate level degree while only 7.3% of Chinese undergraduate students will do the same. With 13% less general undergraduate student population compared to China, the US has more than double the number of graduate students.

In the past, I have written an article discussing this discrepancy in higher education between China and the US. But during the course of writing this article, I have uncovered the critical factor which caused this discrepancy; research funding. Down below is a chart that I have created comparing the researching funding amount of the top ten universities between China and the US.

From the graph above, we can see the discrepancies between the US top universities and their Chinese counterpart. Tsinghua University’s research funding is only one third to Johns Hopkins University’s research funding. Research funding is the backbone towards the cultivation of graduate students; it is commonly invested in equipment, project funding, mentoring, etc. With a 1:3 ratio in research funding between Tsinghua and JHU, lets now take a look at the number of researchers and their per capita funds allocation. There are approximately 5,550 researchers at Tsinghua University with $138,000 per capita [1]. Johns Hopkins University, on the other hand, possesses 17,876 [2] researchers with an average per capita of $117,900. This data shows us that the two countries are actually quite equal in terms of per capita research funding. I believe the lack of graduate students in China stems from the fact that Chinese universities simply do not have the capabilities to support more graduate students.

So, what are some of the reasons that would cause China’s inability to support more graduate students? Let’s first take a look at the income and expenditures between Tsinghua and JHU [3] [4].

From the graph, we can see that there are many discrepancies between the two schools in term of their income and expenditure distribution. For example, 26.9% of Tsinghua’s income in 2017 came from 2016. This is because Chinese colleges and universities tend to withhold a portion of their budget into the next year. While there is no exact reason on paper that I could find, I deduced that this is a countermeasure in case of drastic changes that might occur, a rainy day fund if you would. On the other hand, US universities possess no such reservation. JHU’s financial utilization rate is almost 100% every year.

So where does this confidence come from? Why don’t US universities have reservations about spending all of their funding every year? The answer lies within private donations. In 2016, JHU received nearly 1.45 billion dollars in donations, accounting for 34.8% of the school’s total income. Tsinghua University, however, has only managed to accrue 373 million dollars over the course of 17 years from private donations [5]. Another reason is due to the management model of American university donations funds. Most large donations are invested in school-managed funds. JHU’s donation fund has reached approximately 3.844 billion dollars. This fund is more than enough to cope with any unforeseen situations that might arise. At the top of this list is Harvard University with an estimated worth of $36 billion dollars. And one good fiscal year of earning is enough for Harvard to cover the school’s total expenditures. This is probably the main reason as to why American universities dare to utilize its full budge every year.

Now let’s discuss Tsinghua University. Tsinghua’s research funding takes up 21.8% of its total fiscal revenue compared to the 36% of JHU. (Source: US Department of Education, due to the use of calendar year calculations, it is biased against Bestcollege data. But overall, it does not affect what we are discussing in this article.) Coupled with other Chinese-related expenditures such as health care, family planning, housing security, etc. which takes up 7.1% of its expenditures. So, it is due to these expenditure differences limiting Chinese universities from investing in more research funding compared to the US.

So, what do all of these numbers mean? How do these figures translate to the overall scheme of things? The best way to judge a school’s research program is to look at the quality and quantity of research papers produced. In the ranking provided by SJR [6], the number of academic papers produced by the US is almost twice of that of China. Chinese academic papers will be cited on average of 7.64 times while US research papers average around 24.25. In short, in both terms of quality as well as quantity, China severely lacks compared to the United States. Even papers produced by fifth-ranked Japan has double the citations of Chinese produced research papers.



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Table 1: Scientific Journal Rankings

As we all know, quality research does not occur overnight. It requires a tremendous amount of time, money, and manpower accumulation. The current US standings are the result of over a hundred years of culmination and efforts. The US is ahead of China in terms of both technology and research capabilities. With a smaller population and greater funding, the opportunities as US schools far outstrips China. Up to this point we have touched upon the crux of this article: The value of prestigious American schools lies in its decades of research funding and foundation accumulations. They can provide the best research facilities and the best research instructors. With such a foundation, how can it not produce the most active graduate students? For Chinese graduate students, US universities is an enormous treasure trove. An opportunity to experience a stellar research environment, to broaden your horizon, and to learn the latest knowledge in technology. For any academically oriented person, this is a chance that should not be given up.

In conclusion, in terms of undergraduate education, China has reached the top ranking around the world in terms of scale. (This is without factoring the quality of education) However, the chasm of post-graduate training between China and the US is still prevalent. The root cause, being the lack of research funding is something that will allow the US to sit at the top for many more years to come. Therefore, the value of prestigious American universities is still at an all-time high for students who choose to continue with their education. Because as things stand now, no other countries’ graduate education program can replace the US.


[1] “2017 Nian Gaodeng Xuexiao Keji Tongji Ziliao Huibian,” Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, 2017. [Online]. Available:
[2] “Highest Research & Development Funding,” Best Colleges, 2017. [Online]. Available:
[3] NCES, 2017. [Online]. Available:
[4] “Tsinghua University 2017 Budget,” Tsinghua University, 4 2017. [Online]. Available:
[5] L. Lin, China Education Network, 5 6 2017. [Online]. Available:
[6] “Scimago Journal & Country Rank,” SJR, 2018. [Online]. Available:

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