U.S. Private High Schools Accommodate Influx of Chinese Students
Heads turned when a limo pulled up to Hartsbrook School on the first day of orientation this August. The Waldorf school in rural Hadley, Mass., is known for its alternative curriculum, based on the teachings of Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner—not for flashy displays of wealth. Chickens roam the schoolyard. Pigs, sheep, cows, and oxen are fenced in nearby, part of an agricultural arts program. Classes are small, ranging from 8 to 20 students.
The limo’s elegant occupant had traveled from China to drop off her son Neil. The ninth grader is one of eight students from China and Taiwan who recently moved to America to attend the 265-student private day school. The newcomers are part of an enormous influx of Chinese students clamoring to enroll at U.S. boarding schools and, increasingly, day schools such as Hartsbrook.
From 2005 to 2014, the number of Chinese attending American secondary institutions grew almost 60-fold, from 632 to 38,089, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. A cottage industry of consultants has arisen to help place them at institutions in the U.S. “Last summer, eight agencies contacted us all at once,” says Leslie Evans, Hartsbrook’s enrollment director.
Hartsbrook’s administrators, who thought adding Chinese students would enhance the school’s diversity, teamed up with Shanghai-based Burgeon Education. To create a home away from home, Burgeon leased a sprawling house with a pool, hot tub, and basketball court. It hired Hartsbrook’s art teacher and her partner to serve as house parents, and English tutors to provide eight hours per week of extra language help. Burgeon also arranged for a local restaurant, Amherst Chinese, to cater two meals a day. “We asked them to try and do something more authentic,” says Hao Wang, a director at Burgeon, explaining that Chinese cooking, at least during the first months, helps ease the kids’ social and digestive transition. The eight students each pay $20,000 in tuition and $38,500 more for room, board, fees, and extra services, such as drivers to chauffeur them to the mall.
Burgeon’s mini-dormitory setup, while unusual, is the next logical step toward accommodating the seemingly endless demand to place students from China, who account for almost 50 percent of America’s international high school population, according to DHS. Wealthy parents want to bypass the mainland’s high-pressure education system and boost their children’s chances of getting into an American university. Many also see the move as a “sound business investment,” Wang says. “Parents simply feel the continuing success of their businesses will be predicated on the linguistic skills and the network of international connections that their children will build while studying in the U.S.” Clean air and water is another draw.
Some boarding schools pile in as many Chinese students able to pay full tuition as they can fit, often to the detriment of the English-language-immersion experience. “When we first started working with boarding schools, they had … virtually no Chinese enrollment,” Wang says, noting that Burgeon sends about 300 Chinese high school and university students to the U.S. annually. “Over the years we started to see Chinese students taking up 30 percent, in some cases even 70 to 80 percent of the total population” of some institutions. Hartsbrook’s Evans says two of its students transferred from schools in California and Maine where their parents thought they had too many Chinese peers, diluting the American experience. “It’s really impossible for boarding schools to accommodate the interest [from China],” says John Green, former headmaster at Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., who is working on plans to set up a campus for international students at New Jersey day schools. “I know of boarding schools where the application-to-acceptance ratio for Chinese students is more competitive than Harvard.”
Burgeon began working with day schools to create new opportunities and “sustain the size of our [recruiting] operation in China,” Wang says. Small alternative schools such as Hartsbrook, he adds, are particularly attractive to Chinese parents specifically because they tend to have “a very modest appetite for foreign students and want to maintain their American character.” Hartsbrook, for example, doesn’t plan to admit any more Chinese students for a few years, or until the current enrollees have been successfully integrated. “It wouldn’t be good for the students,” Evans says. Burgeon has set up a similar pilot dorm for 12 students attending Cathedral High School in Springfield, Mass., and says it wants to make housing available for up to 300 day students within five years.
Others are organizing much larger room-and-board operations for day schools. Fairmont Private Schools says there are more than 325 students from China this year at its preparatory academy in Orange County, Calif. That’s 75 percent of its international high school enrollment. Most live in homestays. The Wisconsin International Academy houses about 140 Chinese students in a former Days Inn in Wauwatosa and sends them to five different high schools for classes.
“There’s a real mix of approaches and not a lot of regulation,” says Jeff Bradley, a consultant with Educators’ Collaborative, a search and consulting company for schools. “They’re seeing that there’s a seemingly limitless supply of full-pay students.” Some schools, he adds, likely offer aid to attract and retain American students.
In Princeton, N.J., Chinese investor Jiang Bairong bought the former American Boychoir School, on a picturesque campus designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and set up the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (Prisms), which is 75 percent Chinese. Students pay $43,500 a year for tuition, room, and board. Kevin Merges, the school’s assistant principal, says the students are drawn by smaller classes and “the perception that American schools are better at teaching things like creativity.”
American public schools also want in on the action, both to bring in funds and bolster shrinking enrollment. But they’re up against federal law, which prohibits them from taking visa students for more than one year. John House-Myers, principal of the public Bow High School in Bow, N.H., is lobbying for the Strengthening America’s Public Schools Through Promoting Foreign Investment Act, which would eliminate this restriction. “We’ve got schools [in China] that contact us, and they’re ready to send us 100 kids,” he says. The bill was assigned to a congressional committee in 2013.
On a recent Friday at Hartsbrook High, freshman Neil sits at a picnic table eating lunch delivered from Amherst Chinese. He’s not a fan of the food. “I hate vegetables,” he says in fledgling English. Over the past two weeks, he’s had more homework than in China, but he says that his American classmates are interesting and very artistic and that he likes the Waldorf curriculum, which includes morning singing sessions and unusual subjects like woodworking. Neil also likes Hartsbrook’s location. “My mom knows it’s my dream to study at a U.S. college,” he says. “Here is near Harvard.”