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.
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.
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.
The idea of travelling abroad at a young age to pursue education is not a new one in China. In 1872, the ruling Qing Dynasty sent a group of 120 children to the United States to study Western methods of industrialization and import them to China. Many early Communist party leaders, including Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, also had long stints in the West. Towards the end of the 10-year Cultural Revolution, the government realized that the movement had torn a gaping hole in the intellectual fabric of Chinese society and started sending small batches of young students to the U.S., hoping the business and technological skills they learned abroad could contribute to the goal of rapid modernization at home.
For over a century, bright Chinese students traveled to study in the West so that they might bring those lessons back for their home country's benefit. Now, however, the exodus of Chinese youth seems driven as much by Chinese veneration for Western education as by a desire to escape the social realities of today's China.
Zhao Weibo, the 16-year-old touring private American high schools with his father, says he's determined to attend school here. A star student at a well-reputed junior high school in China and the son of an official at the local ministry of education, Weibo knows that his decision may seem unusual. After all, his prospects in China are already bright. But that's not what most drives him. "I always feel I was born in the wrong country," he says, criticizing the way humanities courses are taught at his school ("the same way as math, we do lots of practice problems") and his English teacher's refusal to engage him in a debate about an answer to a multiple-choice question ("she thinks I was making her lose face"). He believes that an American private high school will be a place that can nurture his interests and his independent thinking, though he has only a vague knowledge about what to expect inside their ivy-covered brick walls.
Weibo's father, Zhao Jun, has supported and largely driven his son's decision. As the editor-in-chief of a magazine issued by the local ministry of education and the husband of a high school teacher, one might expect him to be a proud booster of Chinese education. Instead, he is trying to scoop his son out of the system as early as possible. When I ask why, he speaks in bullet points: "The course design is too rigid, the method of teaching is too mechanical, and the standard for measuring talent is too one-dimensional."
Chinese education is different from Western education in part because it was designed to solve a different kind of problem. In 1950, the literacy rate in China was only 20%; that number grew to 85% by 2001 and today is estimated at 92%. Chinese schools have succeeded in raising the education level of a large population over a short period of time, Zhao Jun says, but they fail to cater to individual students in the way that Western schools do. Because of China's one-child policy, families channel all their hopes into their only son or daughter. Watching their child languish in a cookie-cutter school system can be torturous for parents. Or, as Zhao Jun puts it, "What means one percent to society means 100 percent to a family."
He admits the choice of sending his son to America doesn't come easy, but believes it will eventually pay off. The tuition, high by American standards but astronomical by China's (a discrepancy that's made even more severe by the unfavorable exchange rate), "is a heavy burden for me," he says. "But if he stays in China, I will need to buy him an apartment and a car in the future anyways," a standard practice in China upon a child's marriage. "I'd rather invest that money early in education to equip him with skills."
Sometimes it's about believing in more than just American education. Zhang Mingfang says she started considering sending her son abroad as soon as he was born. She enrolled him in private bilingual kindergarten at three, sent him to his first formal English lesson at five, and travelled with him to the U.S. during summer vacations to help him soak up the culture, all to prepare him for the day he arrived at an American classroom. And that day is not far: now 16 and a student in a competitive high school in China, he made a trip to the U.S. again this winter, this time visiting private schools in New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Zhang hopes these early efforts will lead to a good life for her son, which she believes lies in America. She mentions the country's more leisurely lifestyle and its comprehensive healthcare system. But its greatest promise, she says, is the culture of fairness, which rewards diligence and talent first. "In China everything is based on connection. Things like getting a promotion depend on too many factors. In America, as long as you work hard and deliver results, you will distinguish yourself."
Zhao sees the same hope in America. Asked whether he wants his son to eventually come back to China or live in America, he answers, "I only hope my son could be in a place where he can rely on his talent and capability, in a society defined by explicit rules, instead of where he has to count on, for example, his father's social status. I don't know if I'll be able to compete." He chuckles, and falls silent.
In the fall of 2005, I arrived on the Massachusetts campus of Deerfield Academy, one of only two new students from mainland China, with ear-length hair and two overweight suitcases. Midway through my first day of class, administrators pulled junior English and U.S. history from my schedule and replaced them with English as second language. The next few months were a whirlwind of rules and questions. From the format of biology quizzes to the protocols at sit-down meals, from my classmates' curious enthusiasm about school rivalry to their bizarre habit of popping up the collars of their polo shirts, I found that many of my questions were not answered by the school manual. The classes and extracurricular activities kept me too busy, however, to pause and interpret them all. I needed to swallow them and move on.
Today, many middle class Chinese students and parents can rattle off a list of American high school names in one breath -- an duo fu, ta fu te, huo qi ji si, qiao te, luo si ma li -- but the schools themselves, and the images of what life might be like there, are still distant and foreign. Still, China's middle class families face such pressure to excel, and such fierce competition for success, that they can often barely keep up. It's hard enough to win admission to prestigious American schools and to get good grades once you're there. Who has the time to learn, in advance, what makes an American education different from a Chinese one, or how to survive spending your teenage years in an alien culture with a difficult language? The game is always changing for members of China's middle class, and it's too easy to be late.
Nearly 60 percent of high-net-worth Chinese (individuals with at least RMB 10 million -- roughly $1.6 million in investable assets) are either considering immigration to the West through investment or have already completed the process, according to the China Wealth Management Report, co-released by China Merchants Bank and Bain & Company. (A U.S. law provides a path to residency for foreigners who start a business here or otherwise invest heavily in the American economy.) Fifty-eight percent of them list their children's education as the primary motivation. "The Chinese economy is filled with bubbles -- from the housing market to the stock market," says Shen Jingquan, a senior manager at a state-owned energy company, whose two daughters are both studying at New England boarding schools. "Where else should you invest your money? You should invest it in education. I want my daughters to have my shoulders to stand on when they try to reach for higher places."
In sending their children to America, parents like Shen and Zhao are detaching this next generation from the very society that allows them this freedom while denying it to others. It's a reminder of the growing wealth divisions in China. With wealthier children now spending 4 or even 8 years studying abroad, the economic inequalities are slowly turning into something more entrenched. "In the 1980s, even children who grew up in the countryside could have many options in the future, including going abroad for graduate schools, as long as they study hard at school," Lvqiu Luwei, a Chinese social commentator wrote on her blog after speaking with some parents who have children abroad. "Now, the kids who are studying in American high schools are all from well-off families. They are distinguished by their access to education starting from elementary school or even kindergarten." No longer is the nation's single-tracked education system, which its people have followed for over a thousand years, a reliable channel of upward social mobility. As a rising number of students flock to overseas schools, their less privileged peers at home -- the ones who can't afford consultants and American school tuition -- are out-competed abroad. The number of students who register for Gaokao, China's national college entrance examination, has declined by 700,000 over the last three years.
At the recent "two meetings," an annual two-week event where senior government officials gather to discuss new suggestions for laws, one delegate suggested founding an "elite education system," which the ministry of education approved. By establishing separate campuses within top Chinese universities and funneling the most promising students to the best educational and career opportunities, the government hopes to produce "individuals with highly specialized talent who put national honor and responsibility above their lives."
Whether or not this becomes China's antidote to the brain drain, it's a clear recognition of the problem. But, with anti-elitist resentment already running high in China, setting up yet another opportunity for the privileged class could be politically risky. "Another consequence of having social resources over-concentrated in the hands of the government!" one user on Weibo, China's Twitter-style service, lamented. "Why does it feel like 'mending the fold after the sheep is lost'?" asked another user, borrowing an ancient Chinese idiom. For now, the policy is of little concern for parents such as Shen and Zhao. Government cadres, business entrepreneurs, and well-connected intellectuals are weaving an alternative future for their children, and that future is not in China.
It's a future of a stronger education and freer society -- in America.