China’s education system is no longer reliable for upward social mobility. Today, the new status symbol is an American high-school diploma. It comes with a steep price.
Four years of private high school education in America can cost around $200,000. This is a considerable sum for any family, but more so for a family from China, where the average wealth is about one fifth of those in the U.S. Undeterred, many of China’s wealthy see it as a worthy investment. Education has always been important for most Chinese families and if they have the money, why not?
And top private schools in America, feeling the pain of economic downturn domestically, are more than happy to accommodate the Chinese influx. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, only 65 Chinese students studied at American private high schools in the 2005-06 academic year. That number grew to 6,725 for 2010-11.
Schools on the East Coast are especially seeing an uptick, as wealthy Chinese families use them as a launch pad for their children’s hoped-for future places in Ivy League colleges. Top boarding high schools like Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, and Wyoming Seminary Upper School in Pennsylvania are quite popular with Chinese students coming from the mainland.
In order to help bridge the vast differences between experiences in Chinese and American high school systems, Chinese parents anxious to see their children succeed in the United States are employing the help of costly consultants. These firms offer matriculation advice, tutor for visa interviews, help book overseas flights, and even arrange pickups once their customers land in America.
Sophisticated education agencies in China such as Qide in Beijing are seeing a revenue increase 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.
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, fearing that most applications coming from consultancies are fabricated. “Everything has to match up fairly strongly,” says J.J. Briones, Associate Director of Admission at Deerfield Academy.
Zhao Weibo, a 16-year-old touring private American high schools with his father, says he’s determined to attend school here. “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.
His father Zhao Jun supports his decision. Zhao Jun says of the Chinese education system, “The course design is too rigid, the method of teaching is too mechanical, and the standard for measuring talent is too one-dimensional.” 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.”
photo: deerfield academy