Putting a Price on an International Education
How much would you spend to keep your child out of China’s ultra-competitive educational system?
For some wealthy Chinese, there doesn’t appear to be an upper limit. Top-tier international academies in Shanghai charge 210,000 yuan ($28,000) a year for high school — nearly 1.5 times the average resident’s annual income. And that’s before factoring in the spiraling cost of extracurriculars: 20,000 to 30,000 yuan for a 60-hour Science Olympiad training course, 40,000 yuan for a 21-day TOEFL prep course, and as much as 100,000 yuan in training fees for prestigious competitions popular among China’s elite like the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair.
As a study abroad consultant myself, I’ve benefited from the industrialization of Chinese education and the attendant rise in parental anxieties, but even I can’t help but wonder if Chinese parents’ immense educational spending is really worth it.
The current moment is the culmination of a decadeslong trend toward international education in China. According to a 2022 survey, the number of Chinese students abroad increased nearly 18-fold between 2000 and 2019. The average age of students is also dropping: In 2018, the American educational consulting firm IIE reported undergraduates accounted for nearly 41% of Chinese students in the United States, followed by grad students at 36%, a marked shift from a decade prior.
Powering this shift was a sustained rise in household wealth over the 2000s and 2010s, which gave parents the option to shield their kids from the pressure of the gaokao college entrance exam. In their view, the college entrance examination system forces children to become test-taking machines while suppressing their creativity. In my years advising families, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard concerns about “lively” children who struggle on tests or parents wishing for a more “relaxed” study environment for their kids.
However, while many of the parents I speak to have high hopes that studying abroad or at an international academy will help their kids find their way, they often find that the “relaxed” and “happy” learning environments they dream about are as competitive, or even more so, than China’s public education system.
That’s because international schools often merely shift the competition from within the classroom to outside it. For all the faults of the gaokao, it is a purely academic exam. Foreign universities, on the other hand, do not base their undergraduate admissions solely on exam scores. Students are required to submit application forms, recommendation letters, résumés, personal statements, and essays. Their application forms also ask for details about past extracurricular activities, artistic endeavors, athletic talents, volunteer work, and even research achievements. No single factor can determine admission results, which means that students cannot take any indicator lightly.
Every spring, during admissions season, the results released by international high schools and study abroad agencies show the extent to which “involution” has taken over China’s international education scene. Students admitted to the top 30 universities in the United States almost invariably have a 3.7 GPA and at least one international award or standout extracurricular — recent examples I’ve seen include glacier expeditions or linguistic studies of minority languages in China’s southwest. A few even claim to have published academic papers in international journals.
As I thumb through their résumés, I feel sorry, not just for the kids, but also for their parents. Going to college is no longer just about getting into a school based on test scores; rather, it’s about how much time, effort, and — perhaps most importantly — money parents are willing to invest.
A decade ago, study abroad applicants were far from impressive by today’s standards. Participating in Olympiad competitions was a rarity reserved for only a few top students, and high school students rarely, if ever, thought about publishing academic papers. Although a few packaged short-term research projects as scientific research, doing so was by no means a necessity.
So, what happened? The obvious answer is the rising number of undergraduate study abroad applications over the past decade. But that misses another important shift: the expansion of the private extracurricular education market over the same time frame.
The Beijing Overseas Study Service Association estimates that there are currently over 4,000 study abroad agencies operating on the Chinese mainland. Competition for students is fierce; to please parents and give their clients a leg up in the admissions process, agencies leave no stone unturned, stuffing résumés as full as possible to create a perfect applicant profile.
Surrounding these agencies is a constellation of résumé-buffing training institutions that provide language lessons, research tutorials, and other training services. In addition to the major Olympiad competitions, training schools are aggressive in scouting new events and even developing their own competitions for their clients.
Unsurprisingly, this cutthroat competition between firms as well as students has put pressure on families and produced a number of high-profile fraud cases. It’s also done little to prepare students for a life abroad. For some parents, it’s all a worthwhile investment if it allows their kids the freedom to pursue their interests, but even the most open-minded parents seem to struggle to imagine a world in which they spend hundreds of thousands of yuan, only for their child to follow their dreams and become a beauty vlogger.
Between anxious parents and stressed-out students, my job now resembles a mix of therapy and financial planning. Playing on parents’ fears can be profitable, but it’s not sustainable. What they need is a person who can help them adjust their expectations for the future and help them to decide how much and where to invest. Success isn’t always about winning; sometimes it’s about helping families take disappointment in stride.
Editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: A student talks to a school representative during an international college fair in Beijing, May 2023. Li Na/Beijing Youth Daily/IC)