This year American schools have seen shootings, teacher strikes, and have suffered chronic budget cuts -- but none of this is swaying Chinese students from travelling to the US and paying record high tuition fees.
In a study by China-US Focus, 120,000 Chinese students attended American universities last year, contributing over US$4 billion to the struggling US economy.
At a time when the average American graduate is struggling under US$27,000 in student loan debt which may never be paid, China’s best and brightest - and richest - are keeping struggling US schools open in tough times.
The annual Beijing Education expo has become a priority for American school recruiters. One school which greets applicants at this event is Green River Community College, a tiny low-ranking public college outside of Seattle and charges foreign students US$9,600 per semester when locals pay US$3,522. The school has now begun to promote its wares in Guangzhou, Chengdu and Wuhan.
‘Samford’, a private university in Alabama whose name is often confused in China with the rather more prestigious Stanford University, is also doing well out of the mainland, charging students US$24,570 a year.
The market is huge. And in 2008, China surpassed India as the largest exporter of foreign students, although some institutions may be taking advantage of the Chinese emphasis on education. A Bloomberg article on the education sector in 2011 reported that Chinese families were especially vulnerable to “predatory fees”, and anecdotal evidence suggests that nothing has changed since then.
Chinese students’ love of top American institutions is well known, with Ivy League schools proving a magnet for China’s so-called ‘princelings’. But the growing trend for Chinese students to seek out second and third tier institutions is less well publicised.
A rigid education system in China means that many well off families focus on sending their children to private mainland schools that skip China’s national exam, the ‘Gao Kao’, and send students directly to foreign universities.
The American International School in Guangzhou attempts to recreate the atmosphere and campus feel of a US high school and charges parents 95,300 yuan (HK$119,740) a semester, enough for a downpayment on a small apartment in a second- or third-tier city in China.
Last month, US vice president Joe Biden may have sabotaged US schools’ marketing efforts when he told Pennsylvania University graduates that the US was ““well positioned to lead the 21st century” and in China no one was capable of “thinking different or breathing free.”
The speech didn’t play well with US schools anxious to win business from Chinese families and offended netizens, including Penn State graduates from China who demanded an apology.
However, it has done nothing to stem the flood of affluent Chinese students beating a path to US high schools and universities.
According to China’s Ministry of Education, 400,000 students received student visas in America last year, and a record number of Chinese students headed for US institutions this year.
This is despite America’s education system being in a state of flux.
So far this year, the United States has endured teachers’ strikes in Chicago and Detroit, and nine school shootings in seven states. At the same time, US schools continue to underperform on national test scores lagging behind East Asian, South American, and European students in maths, science and reading.
Even remote and poorly funded high schools are making a play for the China market. One of the most expensive public schools for Chinese is Marvelwood High in Kent, Connecticut that charges Chinese students a stratospheric US$52,000. This is a striking illustration of China’s insatiable appetite for overseas education, and of US eagerness to win business: a low-ranked high school’s tuition fees are higher than tuition fees charged at top ranked universities like Columbia and Yale.
Why do Chinese families pay through the nose for an education at a less than stellar US institution? The price tag is high, but the school’s admission process is less stringent.
NPR covered a story of the quiet suburb of St. Claire Michigan, which began hosting Chinese students from Beijing in 2011, and used the money to fix up the school’s buildings. However, the students’ parents found that the high school was not as good as they thought and paid for an additional four hours tuition a night from a Chinese professor.
Some of these US schools are not just less challenging academically, but actually have fewer resources than schools in China’s first- and second-tier cities.
One such is a public high school in Reiville South Dakota, a struggling farming community with a population of 142. The school charges US$15,000 a semester, more than the annual salary of many families in the district, according to a Reuters report.
The New York Times reported that Millrocket Maine, an impoverished factory community, is charging Chinese students US$27,000 per semester, higher than the average annual income in the town.
Aside from the obvious cultural differences between the US and Chinese education systems, the primary thing that sets the systems apart is price. Despite its flaws, the US public education system is free to citizens.
But in China nothing is free. Parents pay through the nose, starting at kindergarten, one reason why many rural students often suffer a high drop-out rate at primary level.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when China was opening up, the exodus of students sparked brain drain fears. What if China’s best and brightest decided not to return home? But a recent report in the Economic Times did something to allay those fears, reporting that since the 2008 global financial crisis western job opportunities have dried up and more than 70 per cent of Chinese students return home – and compete for low-paying mainland jobs with their high-powered foreign degrees.
Whether or not a US degree gives Chinese students an edge in the job market is debatable. But the attractions of education at laid-back US institutions have made education a cash-cow for some of America’s least distinguished schools.
George McKibbens is a Guangzhou-based writer and educator, who teaches history at South China Normal University and writes for Guangzhou News Express.