Chinese Students Want American Schools

A few months ago America tossed itself into panic mode again, like it does every year when it realizes how low our students are ranked on standardized tests. So it may surprise some of you to learn that despite China’s number 1 ranking on the tests this year, the best Chinese students all want to go somewhere else for college.

I had a number of students over the years talk about their aspirations to go study in the US or England, but none of them eve had the money to make that a possibility. It turns out there are very few scholarships for international students; schools expect them to be able to pay.

So it’s only now that I’m living in a city where people have far more money than their rural counterparts that I am realizing just how much people are willing to pay to send their kids abroad.

It usually starts with an agency that claims to have a special relationship with several top schools. They say their special influence will help your child get into the school of their choice, or you don’t have to pay. However if they do get in, you owe the company around 25,000rmb (~$3,500). Now I have no idea whether or not these companies actually have any connections, but the fee is so high they would be able to survive quite comfortably with even a very low success rate.

Now after the agency has helped you narrow it down to a few Ivy League schools (Chinese parents only care about the name of the school, not the programs), you need to hire another company to help you write your personal statement.

One of my foreign colleagues mentioned that a student asked her to review a personal statement that a company had written for her. She said it looked so outstanding (far beyond what she knew the student was capable of) that it was almost laughable. She insisted that the student would be better off using her own words. Amazingly the student believed her, and was able to get in based on her own work. Her parents though still had to pay for the letter, which cost them roughly 40,000rmb (~$5,500).

Unfortunately many students are not performing well enough in high school to even imagine attending the Ivy League school of their parents’ dreams. So the parents are forced to make a tough choice, leave the student in the Chinese high school where they are failing, or ship them off to another country to try to improve their chances. This second option isn’t cheap (as you’ve probably gathered by now). My co-worker’s son is in this position and they are considering sending him to the US for his final two years. The program costs more than $40,000 per year!

It seems Chinese parents understand what American teachers have been saying for decades, standardized test scores don’t really measure education.

24 responses to “Chinese Students Want American Schools”

  1. Dan says:

    Another perspective is that a foreign degree simply carries more prestige in China than a local one.

    • Tom says:

      My wife’s students actually just said today that foreign degrees are becoming so common they don’t carry as much weight as they used too. My co-workers have also pointed out that Chinese universities don’t teach much practical knowledge, and the degrees don’t carry the same educational value.

      • Dan says:

        A good foreign university teaches even less practical value – try explaining liberal arts to a Chinese person!

        American universities are considered to be among the best in the world – it’s no surprise that affluent Chinese families would prefer to send their children abroad since they have the opportunity. I don’t see that as a necessary indictment of Chinese universities.

  2. I studied at one of the University of California campuses, and I’ve met some students in this situation. Some parents really struggle for this. But it is not only a problem of the parents, it is a problem of the whole system and conception of education. However I have studied that Chinese education is improving incredibly. PIMA’s study showed that Shanghai counts with one of the best educations systems. So, if this keeps this way, probably soon are american students fighting to attend to Shanghai’s Universities. The problem however, is that China is so big, and situations between different cities and between city and countryside are so striking, that is difficult to get an homogeneous perspective.
    Thank you very much, just by reading your blog I am learning so much!

    • Tom says:

      I think you might have missed my final point. Shanghai’s schools have managed to drill students for these tests, but China’s universities are far behind. I think it will be a very long time before American students pass up Harvard for a chance to head to China in the way that Chinese students now pass up Tsinghua to go abroad.

  3. Joel says:

    “My co-worker’s son is in this position and they are considering sending him to the US for his final two years. The program costs more than $15,000 per year!”

    Seriously? I paid ~$20,000 per semester to go to school in the States (albeit private, but still).

    $15,000 a year is a freaking bargain.

    • Tom says:

      For High school? My understanding is that this would be some kind of public school exchange program through a private organization. I think if he went to a private school it would be more than double that.

    • If it’s US$15K a year, better sign me up! Seriously, I think it’s the rep’s cut for getting the person in the door. Or maybe I’m just reading things wrong here.

    • Tom says:

      I’m going to try and double check with my friend on this price I mentioned. I don’t think 15,000 was right, but it’s not the easiest thing to slip into casual conversation.

  4. John Book says:

    As I start most of my posts; In Japan….. most kids study so hard for entrance into the best universities that if they fail to get in, they often commit suicide. To get into a US high school that will get the kid into a great college, (or high school), parents pay from $3000 to $20,000.
    I know, I helped families send their sons and daughters to US Christian high school.

    But if a Japanese college is chosen, it is party time. The kids have been released from the earlier deadly grind of studying… and are getting to relax a bit before the life of the adult starts….there the grind is getting a job and keeping it. Colleges don’t prepare kids for life careers. Corporations/companies don’t want “college molded” new employees. Each company wants a blank slate on which they will form the “perfect” employee, who will work the perfect will of the employer.

    So, most of the society, knows that the college kids are majoring in sex, parties and sex if they stay in Japan. (This is only a tad bit of a generalization.) Many parents and students prefer to send their kids to US or other Western colleges to get real training …. science and medical fields are particularly this way.

    One problem with Japanese kids at any level in the West; they are so shy they hang out with only Japanese kids….never getting new input on how Westerners live. (This is improving a bit as more campuses here are becoming more and more aggressive in bring non-Westerners into their folds….)

    • Yeah, this fits in with my experience when I worked in Tokyo. Those Japanese kids I know, they swot so hard until blood comes out of their pores, and when they hit university, they become (ahem) bone idle afterwards.

    • Ian says:

      Hi John,

      I’m helping a couple of universities in the US with the recruitment of Japanese students who are looking for Christian universities in the US. Perhaps you could offer some advice?

  5. I could’ve sworn you’re talking about the situation in Hong Kong. We have lots of these ‘academic representative’ firms here – doing mostly the same thing with overblown personal statements for applicants, preparing mealy-mouthed sample essays based on highly academic model answers, plus umpteen other things that are mostly beyond the practical abilities of homegrown [Hong Kong] Chinese students. Nobody said Hong Kong wasn’t part of China … (*sigh*). Of course, Hong Kong being Hong Kong, the prices are also usually three times those in mainland China.

    • Tom says:

      I don’t think it’s surprising that this is happening in many places outside of China, I just found it interesting that families here have the money and are willing to spend it. Granted it’s not average Chinese families yet, but they are putting education above just about everything else (except for an apartment and a car).

  6. All right, I hope this is going to be my last comment before I move on to something completely different elswhere.

    Foreign education does have great cachet in Chinese society. Not to put too fine a point on things, anything foreign has great cachet in China, although the partiality to foreign stuff is RELATIVELY less today than in previous times – mainly because of relatively greater economic prosperity + relatively greater openness of society.

    If foreign education has great cachet in a society like Hong Kong (where I am), bank on the cachet will be greater in mainland China. Well, you could go all academicky and say, but Hong Kong’s an ex-colony, it’s got a history of English this or British that, and so on and so forth. No, hehehe, not really, not really at all.

    Reality check about mainland Chinese universities: they’re mostly pretty bad. We’re talking about a 1,300 million population with 200/300 million examinees every year trying to get into tertiary education – that’s hardly conducive to quality (however ‘quality’ might be defined). Situation today is massively better than what we used to see over the border back in the 60s and 70s, but it’s still way behind most other countries.

    I’m not trashing Chinese unis. The fact of the matter is, SOME PARTS of SOME Chinese unis are very good, even world standard. Of course, absolutely speaking, it’s the same anywhere in the world, but it’s more the case in China.

    Take one example from my own experience: I have this bunch of people at a certain university in Hong Kong, reading an English-language bachelor’s degree. These Hongkongers have 10+ years of Hong Kong schooling, i.e. 10+ years of consistent, regular, frequent, assessed & examined bilingual English/Chinese education (around 10 contact hours a week x 10 years). Fact is, my cursory count is 90% of them could barely speak or write English even after the degree. They also feel they’re being unfairly disadvantaged because of not having a foreign education or foreign qualifications (remember, this is Hong Kong I’m talking about) – which is untrue, speaking as an employer myself.

    Take another (highly personal) experience of mine: A mainland Chinese friend of mine was trained in economics in an apparently prestigious university somewhere in mainland China, before moving on to a master’s degree in the UK. That friend, with a high-scoring first degree from a top Chinese university, couldn’t tell the difference between wages, salaries and income. And that friend is not unique in this – many otherwise blameless mainland economics graduates I know or met have this same problem. (Or maybe I’m just running with the wrong crowd, I don’t know.)

    The point I’m making here is, if the education system is so uneven in an otherwise ‘advanced’ place like Hong Kong with 7 million souls, the even more uneven system in China with 200 times more people is much worse. In that context, the only way out (i.e. to have some semblance of comparability) is from a foreign education or foreign qualifications. And from that situation springs the plethora of academic advisory firms, which in no small measure helps the status quo.

  7. […] A few months ago America tossed itself into panic mode again, like it does every year when it realizes how low our students are ranked on standardized tests. So it may surprise some of you to learn that despite China’s … Continue reading → […]

  8. Here is another first hand perspective on the education issue by Lonnie Hodge an American Professor living in China.

    He is listed on Twitter as @lonniehodge and describes himself thus: Silk Road, China
    China-Phile, Army Vet, Retired Prof, Poet, Human Rightist, King of Nothing, Little Boy in Long Pants,Cubs Believer,中式英语,日本語, TSL (Typos as a Second Lang)
    His Blog, on which I found the above blog post, about Chinese seeking education abroad, is at

  9. […] Chinese students want American schools Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Strategies for buying sustainable seafood Rate this: Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailStumbleUponMoreRedditDiggPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  10. […] when there is no accreditation behind it. Many of China’s new middle class are desperately searching for ways to send their children abroad, but schemes like this hurt students and families while enriching a few with connections. […]

  11. stella says:

    I also plan to further my study in the US, but unfortunately, I do not go study there for “better education”. It is weird Chinese people still live in the stereotype of the US, that they everything goes better off across the Pacific Ocean, and that foreign moon is always brighter than the one at home.Today in China, if you have overseas study in the US or Europe, you tend to have a nicer salary. Like me, many college students bound for western nations to “pay a degree”, and then get back home. I think that my generation differs from previous ones, that we believe “the west ” is faltering and life is better around in China. What we should do is to dip into our pocket to pay for our master degree and head back home.

    • Tom says:

      I think there are still millions of Chinese who would prefer living in “the west”, but it is often difficult for a recent graduate to get a green card. Many Chinese students also find it difficult to assimilate, but this doesn’t mean that the standard of living isn’t higher.

    • Well, as the saying goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” But like I said before (in various other posts on this blog) that Chinese mainlanders also tend to be (shall we say) a bit highly developed in their penchant for all things American.

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