by Garrison Xian

The United States has long been a destination for international students seeking degrees from this country’s most prestigious universities. The same is true of U.S. prep and independent schools where international enrollment has boomed in the last 10 years. In research conducted by the Institute of International Education, the U.S. international student population has grown from 565,000 in 2003 to 820,000 in 2013 – a 45 percent increase.

Of that number a majority are from China. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 287,000 student visas were granted in 2013 to Chinese students, representing a 600 percent increase over the past 15 years. Of that number, 31,889 were granted to Chinese students headed to private high schools in the United States.

That trend can be seen in Chestnut Hill as well, where international student populations are growing and Chinese students make up the majority of those students.

The first school in the area to open its doors to a large international presence was Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. According to the former director of international admissions, Kathleen Tkac, the push to expand the population of international students was prompted by a desire to change.

“We felt that the world was changing so rapidly that we needed to meet the needs of our students,” she said. “The one thing that we knew the students needed was to become global citizens. Not to study from a book but to really understand that cultures are different. You can learn from people if you are exposed to other ideas. You could be exposed to other ideas through books but also through other people. That was our big goal.”

As a result, SCH has brought in about 30 international students over the past two years and is planning to increase that number to about 45 within the next few years. Most are from China.

SCH successfully recruited these students through International Education Opportunities, a Jenkintown company that was founded two years ago to cater specifically to international students attending private schools in Philadelphia and Montgomery County. In addition to matching students with schools, IEO offers dormitories for the students to live in as well as host guardians and tutors.

“Last year there were about 50, and this fall there’ll probably be about 70 or 80 students,” said Christina Gaffney, director of the international program at IEO, which also serves students in other private schools in the area, such as Abington Friends School and Germantown Friends School.

Why the popularity of SCH and other Philadelphia area private schools?

“Students who are applying to our schools are looking at the quality of education that they are looking to receive not just test scores and AP classes, although they look at that too,” Gaffney said. “But they also look at the culture and the environment, the faculty, and the fellow students that they are studying with. There are not many places that I know about that have as many high-caliber secondary schools as Pennsylvania, and that goes back to William Penn and Quaker education.”

Eve Fang, a recent graduate of SCH who is heading to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. , was part of IEO’s program. She said that an American education attracted her because of its diversity and its focus on creative problem solving.

“Schools in China teach people how to solve questions following the same thinking pattern, but they hardly encourage students to solve questions in real life or think in a different way,” she said. “In the U.S., teachers encourage students to try and think. Compared to the U.S., math and science classes are harder in China since more time is spent digging the same topics.

“However, classes in the U.S. cover more topics in the same period of time. Students in China are taught that the ranking of your school is more important than that of your major. I think that is the opposite in the United States.”

American schools might be more attractive, but they’re also difficult to get into and expensive.

The international applicant pool has to go through a process of testing and interviews as well as application essays to gain admission to one of these schools. The applicants not only have to go through a rigorous application process at the private schools, they first have to pass through an initial application process into the organization of IEO itself.

And then there’s the cost.

When asked about what it charges students, IEP declined to offer specifics. Fang said her fee to IEP was about $40,000, which is in addition to the average private school education, which is around $32,000 annually. It makes American education particularly expensive – more than double what Americans would pay for the same.

Many students in China dream of attending some of the best universities in the United States, and attending a private school here is the first step to that dream. Although the price is high to attend these elite prep schools, to them it is a part of the American dream and is worth every penny.

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  • Jennifer

    Is this actually a good thing? Will private elementary and secondary schools in the USA become like the medical schools in the USA, many of which are MAJORITY international students? Is this done at the expense of the American students? Parents should question this trend at SCH and demand answers. And if they don’t like those answers, they should demand that there NOT be more of the same. Perhaps they like it. They are paying too much in tuition to just sit back and grumble if they don’t. ( like they did about the merger)

  • bob

    luh u gar bear

  • Suspicious

    Obviously, SCH is a day school having trouble with admissions so they are looking overseas. This is a common way for struggling US schools to meet enrollment goals with full pay families from China and other countries. This is a sign of weakness not strength – ESL programs must be implemented, host families must be found, but each of these international families are bringing the school $35,000+ in net tuition revenue. Cha Ching!