CHICAGO (CBS) — One of China’s most important exports isn’t steel, clothing, or electronics – it’s students.

Chinese students are flooding United States graduate schools. Admissions are up 23 percent this year, the sixth year in a row of a double-digit increase.

As CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley reports, it’s a result of China’s growing economic muscle.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago’s business school, there are so many Chinese students that they’re laughing about it.

“I noticed at the orientation – somebody called a joke, of course – it’s the University of China,” UIC student Yuan Ding said.

For the past few years, the business school enrolled about 300 Chinese grad students – sponsored by Chinese businesses or the government.

But this year, something else happened. Roughly half this year’s incoming students in the graduate accounting program are from China, with many more in the MBA program.

“There have always been a core of students in the accounting program from China, but this year the application rate went way up and the quality of these students is quite high,” UIC Assistant Dean Mary Clark said.

Yuan Ding, 34, worked eight years for GE in China before attending UIC.

“It’s … like a dream for me to study in U.S. So, we’ve been working a long time and we get enough money.”

Their presence here is a direct reflection of China’s increasing prosperity – a growing middle class that wants the best education for their kids and can pay for it.

“I want to learn, like, how to manage, how to handle my money and how to, like, treat my employees really well and how to start a business. That’s why I’m here,” MBA student Daniela Yu said.

Across town, Tiffany Ma is studying communications at DePaul University.

“My generation is definitely the first generation that we can just come, you know, as a choice – that we could just be, like, ‘Oh, I want to go to the U.S. and study,’ ” she said.

The one thing the Chinese students said over and over was that they wanted to study here because America has the best higher education in the world.

Most intend to take their talents back to China, because their economy at home is growing so fast and the opportunities are so plentiful.

On the other hand, these are the kinds of immigrants whose abilities could add tremendously to America’s economy. But the immigration laws often make it difficult for them to stay.

Derrick Blakley