How China's New Love Affair with U.S. Private Schools Is Changing Them Both

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As Chinese students flood private American high schools, aided by high-priced "consultants," they are changing concepts of success and security back home, and leading ambitious schools to seek out more of the eager (and often full-paying) mainlanders.

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Chinese students at a Middle School in Anxian County. A rising number of them will apply to, and possibly attend, U.S. high schools. / Reuters

When 16-year-old Zhao Weibo flew in from China to tour the U.S. east coast with his father, Zhao Jun, they didn't visit the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument. They wound through New England historical villages and affluent suburban towns, in search not of photo opportunities or souvenir shops, but high schools. Zhao Weibo, currently in his last year of junior high school, wants to attend a private high school in America next year. "I like what I heard in China about American private high schools. I like their education style. I think it will be good for my future," he told me.

In the past few years, Chinese students have been flocking to American colleges, anticipating a better education, greater opportunities, and prestige. Last year, 157,588 Chinese nationals studied in U.S. colleges, a 23% increase from the year before. Now, Zhao is part of a booming trend of Chinese students who decide to leave their country's schools for America's before college. Their number is growing even faster than China's GDP. According to the U.S. Department Homeland Security, only 65 Chinese students studied at American private high schools in the 2005-06 academic year. By 2010-11, the number had grown by a factor of 100 to 6,725 students.

Just a few years ago, American private high schools seemed as distant to Chinese families conceptually as they are geographically. On Zhao Weibo's application list is Deerfield Academy, where I studied from 2005 to 2007. When I applied, I had to fly three hours from Beijing to Hong Kong for the mandatory interview; the 600-student boarding school tucked in rural Massachusetts didn't bother to hold information sessions on the mainland. China, though the world's most populous country, didn't have enough interested students. When I eventually decided to attend, my classmates were baffled. Parents' friends urged me to reconsider. Why give up a coveted spot in a competitive Chinese high school, they asked, in exchange for a school of unknown reputation thousands of miles away?

Middle class Chinese families don't see it that way anymore. American high school diplomas are the new must-have for the upwardly mobile. Thousands of miles away, U.S. private schools are adjusting accordingly. Deerfield and other well-known private schools started hosting annual admissions tours in mainland China, attracting crowds of hundreds at each stop. The Association of Boarding Schools, an organization with roughly 300 member schools, has partnered with a Chinese education consulting agency to organize large school fairs in Beijing and Shanghai. In six years, boarding schools like Deerfield and The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut reported a ten-fold increase in the number of Chinese applications. Each received less than 20 applicants in the 2005-2006 academic year and more than 200 in 2011-2012. If they were all accepted, the schools would be one third Chinese. "It is really just incredibly explosive," says Patricia Gimbel, Deerfield Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.

Four years of private American high school education can cost around $200,000, a considerable sum for American families, and even more for a family from China, where average wealth is about one fifth as in the U.S. However, China's many newly minted millionaires see it as a worthy investment and a reliable path to an even higher goal: Ivy League colleges. In fact, the phenomenon reflects more than just the rising economic prowess of China's middle class. It is also a lens into their complicated and often conflicting psychology: increasingly ambitious and outward-looking, at once sophisticated and perhaps a bit naive, they seem driven by a combination of faith in China's future and distrust of its present; a belief that education abroad will translate into success at home. But, dazed by the new emerging opportunities and eager to follow the latest trend that promises them long-term security, both the parents and their children sometimes get something very different from what they'd hoped for.

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Every year in March, affluent Chinese families fill the reception halls of Qide education consulting agency's 20-plus offices. The application deadlines for American private high schools are only nine or ten months away. Parents and their teenage children sit at small round tables that sprinkle the room, leaning forward in their chairs, eyes fixed on the consultant flipping through their transcripts and resumes. An overhanging television screen shows the Gothic buildings and green courtyards of western high school and university campuses.

"Where else should you invest your money? You should invest it in education."

This is only the beginning of what Bu Jing, the chief consultant at a Qide office in Beijing, calls "one-dragon style" service. After the initial consultation, the agency helps the families plan out the application procedure and pick prospective schools. Some students will enroll in preparatory classes for standardized tests like TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the SSAT, a test required by many American private high schools. Families agree to work exclusively with Qide, sign a contract, and provide the agency with whatever information it needs. Several weeks later, they receive back neatly filled application forms, carefully crafted personal statements, and recommendation letters extolling the applicants' characters and academic achievements, all ready to be mailed overseas.

When the admission results are announced in March, the consultants again step in to offer matriculation advice, tutor for visa interviews, help book overseas flights, and even arrange pickups once their customers land in America. In some cases, they will also serve as intermediaries between schools and some of their ill-adjusted clients. "An established education agency like us, we have connections with many American high schools," Bu said to me. "Every student we worked with has succeeded in going abroad."

Sophisticated education agencies in China such as Qide are seeing a revenue uptick in their high school application division in the past few years. Their service, however, has made it more challenging for American private high schools to separate the reality of their Chinese applicants from what appears on their applications, which they say get much more than a polish from professional consultants.

David Damico, Director of Admission at Wyoming Seminary Upper School in rural Pennsylvania, says he believes that the majority of the school's applications from China are fabricated by agents. "It does become more difficult for admissions officers to understand a [Chinese] student and discern a student's strength," he says of the fraudulence, as well as the language and cultural barriers that already complicate his communication with them. "I can't get into [the Chinese applicants'] head as I can with Americans."

Patricia Gimble, Deerfield Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, says they've encountered similar problems. Fraudulence has increased as the number of applications from China spiked, a problem that "is very difficult to figure out." "Some of [the families] are told [by consultants] that they can't get through the process without an agent. That's just not true," Gimbel says.

But how do American high schools get that message out to Chinese applicants and their parents, who are separated by language as well as distance? Both Deerfield Academy and Wyoming Seminary admissions offices say that they are putting more energy into direct and personal interactions with Chinese applicants, such as interviews and informal email correspondence. "Everything has to match up fairly strongly," says J.J. Briones, Associate Director of Admission at Deerfield Academy.

Still, the issue is about more than just communication. By the time Chinese students apply to American high schools, they've spent years in China's grueling education system, in which performance is measured almost exclusively by standardized test scores. American applications, which ask open-ended behavioral questions and request casual personal statements, can feel unfamiliar, even confusing. The mandatory recommendation letters and paper samples are altogether out of context in the Chinese system. Education agencies help translate the American application system into concepts more familiar to products of Chinese education: test cram lessons and application guidance: "help you memorize 100 new vocabularies each day" and "write yourself into a hardworking girl with a powerhouse potential." They break confusing application projects into straightforward instructions and routines, not unlike the official guidelines that Chinese students receive before every set of final exams.

Some of the less competitive American private schools do rely on education agencies to publicize themselves and procure students from China -- a reliable source of income as the U.S. economy suffers, and for this reason many agencies are able to promise their clients admission to at least one American school. Still, some Chinese students say they are frustrated with their agents' dubious skills and lofty service fees, and have shared their experiences on popular online forums discussing the reputation of various education agencies.

Some American schools such as Brooks School in northern Massachusetts and the Webb Schools in California are seeking their own help. With the tag line "your China admissions partner," Vericant was founded in 2010 to serve as a third-party organization that helps American private schools verify the identities of Chinese applicants. When requested by American schools, the Chinese applicants would walk into Vericant's office in Beijing, film a 10-minute video interview and take a short writing test on the spot, both of which would be uploaded onto an online interface for the schools to access. Chris Boehner, the founder of the company, says the demand for his service is high now: in one year, he already has 12 partner schools. "The climate here just calls for something like this," he says. 

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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