How China’s Love Affair with U.S. Private Schools Changes Both of Us
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.
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