EAST LANSING — People who haven’t visited Michigan State University’s
campus lately may be surprised to find Maseratis, Lamborghinis and
Bentleys driving around.
What’s more striking is who’s behind
the wheel — 19 and 20-year-old Chinese students.
College campuses have long been accustomed to cheap,
hand-me-down cars that belong to cash-strapped students. But sports cars in the
range of $150,000 to $200,000 used to be unheard of — until recently.
The phenomenon has played out on several college campuses nationwide, as schools welcome more wealthy students from China. The trend has led to some negative stereotypes of MSU’s growing Asian population, characterizations that people familiar with the students say are unfair.
MSU’s Chinese student population has exploded the last several years. It’s now home to about 4,400 students from China, up from fewer than 500 in 2003.
And many of them drive nice cars.
Auto dealers cater to Chinese students
Chinese students account for 10 to 20 percent of Steve Shaheen’s business at Okemos Auto Collection, which sells German luxury brands BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.
The trend started about four or five years ago and has increased each year since, said Shaheen, the dealership’s general manager.
“Not everybody buys $100,000 cars; we can sell a $20,000 pre-owned BMW as well as a $100,000 Porsche,” he said. “So it’s a good variety.”
Keyan Li, an MSU junior studying supply chain management and president of the Chinese Undergraduate Student Association, estimates that most of his undergrad Chinese classmates drive vehicles that are considered luxury brands, including Lexus and Infiniti.
Of course, not all Chinese students drive luxury cars, and not all that do own higher-end vehicles shell out six figures for their ride.
Li, 21, drives a Lexus ES 350 that cost about $35,000. He said most of his classmates’ cars range from $30,000 to $50,000, but he said there are roughly 20 high-end sports cars on campus that can cost up to a quarter-million dollars or more.
Many Chinese students come from wealthy families that can afford to spend some $50,000 on tuition, room, board and other school expenses each year. Spending another $50,000 for a car is “no big deal for them,” Li said.
“We have very strong family values, so Chinese families give their children the money to support their life until they find a good job and enough money to survive,” he said.
And it’s a relatively cheap compared to back home. A BMW 328 that costs around $40,000 here would cost $80,000 to $100,000 in China, mostly thanks to high taxes, Li said. The price difference for high-end sports cars is even greater.
“When they come here, they say, ‘Wow, BMW is so (much) cheaper, so I can buy one,'” he said. “Because it’s just worth the price for Ford Focus in China so I can buy it here.”
Along with higher price tags, drivers in large cities like Shanghai and Beijing pay license plate fees that can cost $15,000. The price is meant to discourage adding more vehicles to the highly congested roads.
“People can say, ‘Oh, I can live better in the United States, why not? After I graduate I just sell my car back into the market,'” Li said.
Students usually pay with cashier’s checks, Shaheen said. Before they graduate, many students sell their cars back to the dealership.
Someone who buys a BMW 5 Series for $50,000 with no interest can sell it back for $30,000. That amounts to about $550 a month for the three years they owned it.
Considering the average American might lease a Chevrolet for $300 a month, Shaheen said paying upfront for the car and reselling it is “a smart move on their part.”
It’s also a boon to the local economy. Restaurants, retail stores and high-end apartments all benefit from the larger disposable income of many international students.
Shaheen said he’s hired about three new employees as a result of the increased business.
“They’ve done a lot not just for my business, but the local economy,” he said.
The trend of Chinese students driving luxury cars brings several negative stereotypes, ones that people familiar with the students were quick to contradict.
“I think there are a lot of stereotypes, a lot of negative stereotypes around luxury cars and how that’s tied to wealth and how that’s tied to challenges of adapting to the local community,” said Desiree Qin, an MSU professor from China who teaches globalization and immigration.
Chinese students already face unfavorable viewpoints tied to the larger socio-historic background of Asian Americans, Qin said. Adding expensive cars to the mix creates the stereotype that all Chinese students are wealthy, privileged students that are more concerned with partying than studying.
But that’s not the case, said Ryan Sucharski, office manager at Michael Church State Farm Insurance. The East Lansing agency gets about 5 to 10 percent of its business from Chinese students.
He said it’s been tough getting in touch with his clients the past few weeks because they’ve been studying for finals. Most of his Chinese customers get discounts for having high GPAs.
“They’re wired, they’re disciplined, very hard working,” Sucharski said. They also tend to be modest.
“It’s much different than an American driving a Ferrari or a Lamborghini,” he said. “They’re not doing it to be showy.”
Shaheen echoed those thoughts.
“They’re not cocky or arrogant, they’re just nice kids,” he said.
Li doesn’t like being the topic of American students’ conversations. He declined to be photographed for this article, as did several of his friends.
“They are not stars; they don’t want to show off,” he said.
Li admits he thinks it’s “ridiculous” to buy $200,000 cars to drive to and from class.
“But in China you may not have a chance to drive that,” he said. “If I go back to China, I may buy a Ford or Toyota or something.”