Are Chinese Elites Going Abroad Too Young?

An estimated 83 percent of Chinese millionaires plan to send their children to school abroad, and at increasingly younger ages. Attending university or graduate school abroad has been a longstanding aspiration for many Chinese people, however, over the past couple years there’s been a dramatic upsurge in wealthy Chinese families sending their children abroad at much younger ages. The average age of Chinese rich children going abroad to study full-time fell from 18 years old in 2014 to 16 years old in 2016.

And that age will continue to drop. William Vanbergen, founder and managing director of BE Education, a high-end education consultancy based in Shanghai, shared that currently 60 percent of their students are planning on going abroad between the ages of 13 and 14.

Looking to get a Leg-Up

This shift is occurring for a number of reasons. Along with economic growth and the rise of the Chinese middle class, the dream of attending university abroad has become attainable to an increasing number of Chinese families. What was once only for the brightest and richest is now accessible to the masses. Competition to get into top foreign universities has become more intense, causing some Chinese families to send their children abroad as early as middle school in an attempt to get a head-start.

Parents hope that being exposed to Western culture and the education system, as well as being in an English-speaking environment, will help their children become stronger college applicants. On top of that, elite private schools and boarding schools often have excellent relationships with top universities, who tend to lack trust in Chinese schools.

“My mom had always planned that I would go abroad for university, and then due to bad experiences that I had in both public and international schools in China, we decided I should spend my last few years of high school abroad too,” shared John, a wealthy Chinese student who is now a freshman at Bentley University in the US.

Like many Chinese students, John struggled to fit into the traditional Chinese educational model which heavily emphasizes rote memorization. As an alternative, he tried going to an international school, but felt the administration was a mess and that he wasn’t learning much there either. Instead of spending a large amount on an untrustworthy international school, he and his parents decided they would rather spend the money on schooling abroad.

A Flood of Applications

As the number of Chinese high school students wanting to study abroad has increased, schools and governments have taken notice. The Canadian government is actively encouraging the flow of Chinese high school students. In May 2016, the Canadian immigration bureau (CIC) initiated a new type of visa for students in grades 10 to 12 to simplify the visa application procedures and financial requirements.

The number of Chinese students studying in American high schools has also skyrocketed, up by 48 percent since 2013. This is particularly apparent in private-school hubs like New England. In fact, many elite boarding schools have found the flood of applications so great that many are having to turn away Chinese students in order to keep a balance of diverse nationalities among the student body.

The UK, well-known for its prestigious boarding schools, is a popular destination as well. When asked where most of their students are headed, William Vanbergen mentioned boarding schools Eton and Wycombe Abbey. “We’ve also been working closely with schools such as Radley College, The Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Caterham School, Downe House School and The King’s School Canterbury, etc,” he said. “For the US side – Thatcher, Blair, Deerfield, Pennington, New Hampton, Choate.”

Heavy Reliance on Agencies and Consultants

Like many Chinese families, when John’s family decided to send him abroad, they had no idea where to start and turned to an agency who gave them a list of 30 schools around the world. His mother eliminated all the options in large cities, fearing that there would be too many temptations for a young student all alone in a new country, and ended up deciding on Middleburg Academy in rural Virginia.

Studying abroad in high school is generally something only wealthy Chinese can afford as parents must not only pay private school tuition (often $30,000 or more a year) room and board and living expenses, but also pay exorbitant fees to the recruiters and counselors who place their children abroad.

Agencies typically charge anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 to help Chinese kids prepare for and apply to foreign schools. Additionally, some may earn a kickback from schools they are contracted with. Many independent day schools in the US, faced with financial pressures, have seized on the opportunity to enroll full-tuition Chinese students and partner with Chinese agencies to help them recruit.

While there are many reputable consultancies out there, the industry is highly unregulated and many agencies have been caught taking advantage of their customers, spinning an additional profit on language training programs and by finding them homestay families.

John chose to attend a day school, thinking that living with an American family instead of in a boarding school dorm would give him the opportunity to learn more about American life. What he didn’t know was that the agency was recruiting homestay families through Facebook, with little to no verification process.

His first homestay family fed him only mac and cheese from a box for a month straight. At the next he fell out with the host mother and her boyfriend. His third host family gave him a room in the basement next to a cat litter box they only cleaned once a month. And his fourth host family was extremely stingy, forcing him to pay for an entire tank of gas anytime he asked for them to take him to the supermarket, just five minutes down the road.

When he finally got his US license, his mom bought him a Mercedes, which he thought would end his problems. But that just drew more attention. One weekend while he was away visiting universities, several thousand dollars in cash was taken from his room at his homestay. He didn’t press charges though, as he was leaving for college soon and “didn’t want to cause trouble.”

Sink or Swim

John isn’t alone. This new wave of Chinese students is more vulnerable, leaving their families at a young age to travel around the world to a country where they struggle with the language, culture and social expectations.

Although this is a concern for many families, they see the educational opportunities as too great to pass up.

“We have seen an increase from Chinese families in the past 10 years from around 50 families per year to 300 families looking to be placed from our company at the moment,” explains Vanbergen. “The youngest child that we sent recently is six years old.”

John says that despite his horrific homestays, his experience at Middleburg made it all worth it.

“The curriculum exposed me to a variety of courses I wouldn’t have taken otherwise. I became more talkative, more confident, more resilient, and I solve problems more logically. I definitely am a different person now than I was before, and I’m sure that helped with my college applications.”

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