Seeking the world’s best education, Guan Wang’s parents in northeast China paid an agency there $4,700 to get her into a premier American boarding school in 2009.
The company steered her to the Marvelwood School, which charges Chinese students $52,000 a year. She relied on the agency’s assurances that the Kent, Connecticut school was coveted and academically rigorous, with 20 Chinese students among its 155 boarders, Wang said.
Marvelwood didn’t fulfill those expectations, Wang said. She had so many Chinese dormmates that she couldn’t practice English. Some Americans in her world history course would forget their textbooks and lay their heads on their desks, she said. The school accepts four of five applicants, its average SAT score is below the national norm, and since 2005, one graduate attended an Ivy League college. Half its U.S. students have learning differences, from attention deficit disorder to Asperger’s Syndrome, headmaster Arthur Goodearl Jr. said. About 40 boarders came from China last year.
“I couldn’t find a real American education at Marvelwood,” said Wang, 19, who transferred to another Connecticut boarding school with fewer Chinese and learning-disabled students. “It made me not really happy.”
Boarding schools with small endowments and less selective admissions policies are boosting their revenue and enrollment by recruiting thousands of Chinese students who pay full freight. As the weak economy has shrunk the pool of well-off U.S. applicants, many of these schools are using agents with misleading sales pitches to tap a growing number of wealthy families in China eager for the prestige of an American degree.
The number of Chinese students at U.S. private high schools soared more than 100-fold to 6,725 in 2010-11 from 65 in 2005-06, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. China has displaced South Korea as the top source of international students at boarding schools, with the smallest schools having the biggest increases in Chinese enrollment, said Peter Upham, executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools in Asheville, North Carolina.
Promised an elite college-prep experience by agents in China, these students often find that one-third or more of their dormmates are also Chinese, and many of the U.S. students require extra time and support. The schools end up segregated academically and socially into full-paying Chinese students, many of whom rise to the top of their classes, and American teenagers who fell behind in public schools.
“This is a classic case of the continuing exploitation of Chinese students and parents, not only by agents in China but also by the independent schools that pay and enable them,” said Richard Hesel, principal of Art & Science Group, a Baltimore-based firm that advises colleges and private high schools on enrollment, including recruiting in China without using agents.
Half a dozen Chinese students applied this year to transfer to St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Florida, because they were frustrated attending other U.S. schools with higher Chinese enrollment, according to Kilian Forgus, the associate head for enrollment and planning at St. Andrew’s.
“It’s unethical to have too many students from one language group,” Forgus said. His school caps the number of Chinese boarders at 15 out of 102. “The ability to integrate into an American education system is compromised.”
As awareness of different learning styles has evolved, schools such as Marvelwood fill a vital niche for college-bound teenagers who need help with organization, time management and study skills, current and former boarding school administrators said. About 40 percent of Marvelwood students are enrolled in math tutorials or a “Strategies” program, which has 18 teachers providing one-on-one “academic support and remedial instruction,” according to the school’s website.
Chinese students as well as Americans benefit from Marvelwood’s small classes, said Goodearl, who came as headmaster this year. They improve their English, experience American culture, and get into U.S. colleges. Students from different backgrounds room together so that no dormitory has an all-Chinese floor, he said. More than 90 percent of underclassmen return to the school each year, a retention rate that reflects student satisfaction, said Marvelwood Chairman James Samartini.
Marvelwood prefers to recruit through consultants or alumni rather than agents, Goodearl said in an interview in his office, with his diplomas from Harvard College and Wesleyan University on the wall behind him. Chinese applicants don’t need to know that the school specializes in helping students with learning differences, he said.
“Going to school with ADHD students is quite good,” he said. “We’re proud of all our students.”
Wisdom Services in Dalian, China, which Wang said referred her to Marvelwood, didn’t respond to e-mailed questions about her recruitment. One of China’s 402 registered agents, Wisdom places Chinese students in 26 countries and “has successfully made the dreams of studying and living abroad come true for tens of thousands of clients,” according to its website.
Unlike sought-after boarding schools with hefty endowments, which only admit a handful of Chinese students who speak fluent English, lesser-known schools recruit the Chinese by offering English-language instruction -- and by using agents who put a flattering spin on their reputations, according to Chinese students and graduates.
Paid by the U.S. boarding schools, Chinese families, or both for each student enrolled, the agents promote schools’ Advanced Placement courses, bucolic campuses and proximity to major cities, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Virginia. IECA members don’t accept compensation from schools for placing a child. Once students are enrolled, some agents continue to collect fees from schools to pass along progress reports to parents.
Agents avoid the topic of learning differences, which China lags behind the U.S. in diagnosing and treating. “Chinese parents don’t want their children in schools for students with learning issues,” said Lee Reagan, North America manager for A&A International Education & Multi-Culture Centre, a Shanghai-based agency that represents 28 U.S. boarding schools.
‘We’ll Send You Kids’
Oliverian School in Haverhill, New Hampshire, which serves students who struggled in traditional schools, is interested in recruiting similar teenagers from China, headmaster emeritus Barclay Mackinnon said. When Mackinnon urged agents in China to tell families about Oliverian’s niche, he “got the sense they just weren’t hearing me,” he said. “They just wanted to know, ’Will you take kids? We’ll send you kids.’”
The National Association for College Admission Counseling, an Arlington, Virginia, nonprofit group whose members include colleges and high schools, wants to clean up recruiting of international students. It announced in July that it will appoint a commission to set ethical standards and consider alternatives to incentive-based compensation for agents abroad. Colleges are prohibited from paying incentives to recruit U.S. students who qualify for federal financial aid. While American schools use agents worldwide, the practice is especially common in China because agents are ingrained in its culture, said David Hawkins, NACAC director of public policy and research.
Schools should be “forthright” with Chinese parents about the makeup of their student bodies, said Paul Miller, director of global initiatives for the National Association of Independent Schools, a Washington-based group representing 1,400 private schools, including Marvelwood. “We’re not in favor of schools filling their rolls with full-paying international students if the only motivation is the bottom line.”
At the Knox School in Nissequogue, New York, 55 percent of the 140 students come from China. They pay almost $55,000 the first year, including $9,600 for English as a second language and $1,800 for orientation. The ESL fee is justified because classes are smaller, and price isn’t an issue because China has a lot of multimillionaires, headmaster George Allison said.
Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut, increased its Chinese population to 102 of its 210 boarders in the past academic year, up from five in 2008-09, said Alan Whittemore, its international admission coordinator.
“You can turn the valve on and off,” said Jay Goulart, the school’s former interim headmaster. “If you need another 20 kids at 50 grand a pop, you get them from China.”
Cheshire cut the number of Chinese students to 90 this year because parents complained they might as well have kept their children in schools in China, Whittemore said. Cheshire, which also has 150 day students, provides academic support for about 35 students with learning differences.
“We’re still experiencing” the parental backlash “and still dealing with it,” said current headmaster Douglas Rogers. “We don’t want to turn kids away simply because of nationality.”
Signs posted in Cheshire’s academic buildings remind students that it’s an English-only campus, Rogers said.
Visiting China in June, Rogers was asked to speak to parents about prep-school education. Instead of the informal session he envisioned, he found himself in a civic auditorium speaking to more than 800 people, with 150 VIP’s paying almost $300 apiece and everyone else at least $50. Ushers collected tickets with his picture on them.
“I felt a little like a rock star,” Rogers said.
The Chinese influx has caused tensions at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School in Waltham, Massachusetts. The product of a 1971 merger between a girls’ school and a boys’ feeder school for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall occupies 40 acres of woods and wetlands bisected by a brook and frequented by hawks, turtles and a blue heron. It has 165 students in grades 9-12, including 80 boarders.
The school’s endowment slid to $1.8 million on June 30, 2010, from $2.2 million on July 1, 2008, according to filings. It has suffered a “slight downturn” in inquiry and application rates, headmaster Lance Conrad said.
Growing Chinese enrollment has cushioned this decline. Half of the boarders come from other countries, primarily China, said Conrad, who declined to provide exact numbers. Eleven new international students in September came from eight countries, he said.
Not offered financial aid, the Chinese pay $46,000 for tuition and room and board, plus a $1,000 international student fee added in 2009 to cover costs such as airport transportation and Lunar New Year celebrations. Unlike Knox and Marvelwood, Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall doesn’t charge for English-as-a-second-language classes because they substitute for regular courses, Conrad said.
‘In Our DNA’
Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall has enjoyed prior spikes in enrollment from other countries, said Siri Akal Khalsa, the school’s president, a Brooklyn native who converted from the Russian Orthodox Church to Sikhism and sports a white turban and long white beard. “It’s in our DNA to be very globally minded. There’s been a reapportioning of where students are coming from. There’s no change in our admissions policy or mission.”
Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall features a learning center to help students understand concepts and organize assignments. “Nearly 70 percent of our students have been diagnosed with some learning difference, including things like ADD, ADHD, or Dyslexia,” according to the school’s website.
“Nearly 70 percent” is a “misprint,” Conrad said. The statistic was dropped from the website after a Bloomberg reporter asked about it. Less than half of students have been diagnosed with learning differences, said Conrad, who declined to give a percentage for its U.S. students.
Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall attracts “asymmetrically excellent” students, he said. Their intelligence is often “bodily kinesthetic or naturalistic,” which is under-appreciated in public schools, rather than linguistic or mathematical-logical, said Conrad, referring to Harvard Professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple types of intelligence.
Shuyang Shen, whose father is a clothing exporter in southeast China, enrolled at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall as a sophomore in January 2009. Her agency, Guangzhou-based EIC Group, one of the biggest in China, didn’t tell her that many of her U.S. classmates would have learning disabilities, she said.
Shen soon noticed that some of them had short attention spans or said “random things” in class, including one student who spouted pro-Hitler and pro-Stalin slogans, she said. “He knows he has a problem but he can’t stop,” she said.
During her senior year, a roommate told her that attention deficit disorder was prevalent at the school. Before then, “I thought it was normal in the U.S,” said Shen, 19, who graduated second in her class in June and is a freshman at the University of Southern California.
It would be “counter-productive” for Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall’s agents to tell Chinese parents about its learning-disabled population, Khalsa said.
“In many Asian countries, the idea of any sort of learning difference is anathema. Even to talk about any learning difference translates into, ‘Not my child.’”
Khalsa is “aware of abuses that can happen at the ground level when people are paid to recruit kids,” he said.
EIC has sent three students to Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall since 2008 and received no complaints, spokeswoman Yalan Chan said in an e-mailed response to questions. The agency isn’t aware that the school serves students with attention-deficit disorder, she said. “Neither the school’s information, website or publicity materials indicates this,” she said.
As a junior, Shen wanted an American roommate so she could improve her English, she said. Instead, she was assigned a newcomer from China. When she asked why, dorm parent Paula Buerger told her, “We have too many Chinese here, we can’t arrange it, you can help her,” said Shen. Buerger, who is also the school librarian, declined to comment.
Rooming Chinese students together bothered their parents as well, said Cathy Lindamood, the school’s former director of academics. “I had numerous conversations with families to assure them we were trying to place students with American roommates,” she said.
Headmaster Conrad said he hasn’t received any complaints from Chinese parents about the number of students from China. Under school policy, first-year students from the same culture can’t room together, he said. Returning students have more leeway.
‘Mix It Up Monday’
Chinese and American students occupy separate tables in the cafeteria, said senior Justin Gerard. To encourage mingling, the student government held a “Mix It Up Monday” last year. “It was a moderate success,” he said.
The clustering of Chinese students in the dining room doesn’t bother Conrad. “They need that opportunity to decompress,” he said.
Chinese students dominate advanced math classes, students said. Lauren Bass was one of two Americans in her math class last year along with a dozen Chinese, she said. “It was an interesting class, especially when we would do group work,” said Bass, now a freshman at the University of Vermont.
“The Chinese students would speak in Chinese,” she said. “I’d sit there with them and I’d have no idea what was going on.”
If a Chinese student was having difficulty in class, the teacher communicated with parents through an agency, said Lindamood, associate director of international programs at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“If a student was struggling academically, I would contact the agency,” she said. “Grade reports went to the agency. They controlled the message back home to the parents.”
This interposition between school and parent is a hallmark of International Student Education Services Inc. in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which Conrad said supplies “half or less than half” of Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall’s Chinese students. ISES represents 57 U.S. high schools, and works with more than 100 agents in China, including Shen’s agency, EIC Group. The agents sent hundreds of Chinese students to U.S. high schools through ISES in 2010.
Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall depends on ISES for international students because the small school can’t afford to market itself worldwide, Conrad said. “We turn away many students from ISES whom we don’t believe are mission-appropriate,” he said.
When a student is placed, ISES receives a tuition discount from the school and charges the family full price, according to a person familiar with its operation. It shares the difference with the Chinese agent. By acting as a conduit for a school’s contact with parents, ISES collects a portion of returning students’ tuition, said the person familiar with ISES.
All About Revenue
Agents are “all about these additional sources of revenue,” said Sklarow, director of the consultants’ association. “What kind of school thinks it’s not healthy to communicate directly with a parent?”
While ISES “helps us with passing information to families,” parents can look at student grades and attendance as well as notes from teachers on a secure website, Conrad said.
“Many parents do not speak English so we forward reports and all communication to our regional office in China to translate so the parents are properly informed,” Diane Andres, ISES vice president for operations and enrollment, said in an e-mail.
Study Group, based in Sydney, Australia, with offices in China, has also referred international students to Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall, including senior David Chen. Growing up in Shanghai and Taiwan, Chen dreamed of studying physics and music at MIT, he said. When elite U.S. boarding schools placed him on their waiting lists, Study Group recommended Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall as a safety, he said. The agency dodged his questions about the school’s average SAT scores, Chen said.
“The first day I got here, I was asking, ‘Did anybody here go to Harvard or MIT?’” Chen said. “They all acted shocked. Nobody here ever went to Harvard, MIT or any top 10 school.”
No Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall graduate entered MIT in 2007-2010. Of the eight elite Ivy League colleges, only Cornell enrolled at least one graduate of the boarding school during that time, according to the school’s website.
“Our expectation and normal practice would be to ensure students have the full information they need,” said Nick Rhodes, a New York executive of Study Group, which represents about 12 U.S. high schools.“It may be a misunderstanding.”
The school can’t control how agents portray it, Conrad said. “There’s no way on this great earth I can tell you what they say and what their marketing approach is.”
Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall has discontinued its relationship with Study Group, he said.
Dismayed by the school’s college placement record, Chen considered transferring. Instead, he began to enjoy himself. Because his courses were undemanding, he had time for friends and outside interests. He took four Advanced Placement tests on his own.
“I’ve developed my personality a lot,” Chen said. “Everything turned out for the best.”
No Questions Asked
Chinese students at Marvelwood aren’t always so sanguine. Perched on a hillside overlooking the Housatonic River valley, Marvelwood provides “a structured environment and intense faculty involvement” for “students who have not previously been able to perform to their capabilities,” according to its website. Its mission “to fill the gap between conventional college preparatory schools and strictly remedial schools” has “remained fundamentally unchanged.”
That’s not the mission Todd Holt pitched on his annual recruiting trips to China as Marvelwood’s admission director from 2005 to 2008. Asked if he told Chinese parents about the school’s learning-disabled population, Holt said, “There was no reason to bring it up unless they had questions about the types of students their kid would be going to school with. In general, they wouldn’t ask that question.”
Foreign Student Body
Marvelwood worked in China with many agencies, most of which were paid by families rather than the school, Holt said.
When Alfred Brooks joined the school’s board in 2000, fewer than one in five students came from abroad, he said. By the time he retired as chair in 2010, almost 40 percent of its 170 boarding and day students were foreigners, predominantly Chinese, he said. Those students pay $46,500 for tuition, room and board, $4,800 for English-language classes, and a $995 international student fee introduced in 2008.
“The core mission expanded,” Brooks said.
“The Chinese -- they’re high achievers,” he said. “Almost without exception, you’ll find that they get the highest grades. They’re very, very motivated. A lot of the students we have are very unmotivated. You have to find a way to motivate them.”
‘Don’t Know English’
Asked if recruiting the Chinese fits the mission, English department chairman W. Michael Augusta said, “Their learning difference is they don’t know English.” He added, “Our Pacific Rim population is helpful to our balancing the budget.”
Chinese enrollment at Marvelwood declined to “three dozen” in September, Goodearl said. If Marvelwood takes a student through an agent, that agent should be paid by the family, not the school, he said. Marvelwood, which had $1.4 million in endowment funds as of June 2010, offers financial aid to international students, he said.
The surge in Chinese enrollment dismayed both American and Chinese students at Marvelwood.
“There were some times when the American students would get a little annoyed,” said 2011 graduate Adam Shapiro. “The Chinese students would hang out in big groups, 15 or 20 students. It was just very separated. There was supposedly a rule that the Chinese kids were supposed to speak English. They never followed through with it.”
“When I was at Marvelwood, I always hang out with people from my own country,” said Shanghai native Qian Wang, 20, who graduated in 2010 and is a sophomore at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “I cannot learn different language or culture.”
Lack of progress in English hampered 2011 graduate Po Kai Chang’s transition from Marvelwood to Michigan State. Chang, 19, comes from Taiwan, which more than doubled the number of students it sends to U.S. boarding schools to 512 in 2010-2011 from 206 five years earlier, according to Homeland Security.
Chang, who hung out mainly with Taiwanese friends in his three years at Marvelwood, was admitted on a provisional basis to Michigan State because he scored below the university’s minimum on an English test, he said. He is taking English full-time and must become proficient within a year to remain enrolled.
“We want to improve the fluency of every student so they can transition smoothly to their next destination,” Goodearl said.
Chang applied to transfer from Marvelwood to a Pennsylvania private school with fewer Chinese students, he said. It rejected him due to his poor English, he said.
“Most of the Chinese students wanted to transfer,” said 18-year-old Yu-Tung Cheng, also from Taiwan, who was valedictorian of Marvelwood’s 2011 class and is now a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. “Then we found out the process of transferring was really complex, and most of us gave up.”
Neither Marvelwood, her parents, nor her “A” average could deter Guan Wang from transferring. “It’s easy to get good grades at Marvelwood,” said Wang, who enrolled there in January 2009. “It’s not a really strict school. The education level was below what the agent promised.”
After two terms, Wang decided to switch to the all-girls’ Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut, in September 2009. More selective than Marvelwood, Ethel Walker admits 66 percent of applicants, according to boardingschoolreview.com, which compiles self-reported data from schools.
Her parents, who work in energy companies in China, balked at first. “They said, ‘You just got here, stay where you are.’ Finally I told them my reasons. They support me,” Wang said.
Marie Gold, chair of the English Language Learners’ department, tried to persuade her to stay. Gold told her that Marvelwood’s rural surroundings were more scenic than Simsbury, an affluent Hartford suburb, Wang said. Gold didn’t respond to e-mailed questions.
At Ethel Walker, which doesn’t specialize in working with learning-disabled students, Wang was one of two Chinese students in her grade, she said. She graduated in June and is a freshman at the University of California, Davis, majoring in environmental science and management.
“I loved the Ethel Walker School,” she said. “The American students were very friendly and studied very hard.”