Is China buying the American dream for the next generation?

It starts early. Where are you sending Emma to preschool? How about Kindergarten? Children have hardly made their way out of diapers before the school conversation gets started. It’s natural. We want the best for our children.

From there it continues at break-neck pace.

Have you considered the middle school with career-specific track?

I love our high school’s I.B. program, but the private school has a lower teacher-to-student ratio.

Did Robert apply early decision to his first choice college? What’s his safety school?

We are living in an era of significant educational transformation. The demise of American schools has been a topic of conversation for what seems like for-e-ver. Our federal government has attempted, unsuccessfully, to intervene through initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. Though packaged with good intentions, neither the right nor the left has been able to provide a “cure-all” to fix our fledgling system.

In his outstanding, must-read piece, NPR’s Cory Turner offers a deep dive on how public schools are funded across the country and the terrible disparity that exists from one locality to another. Turner’s article can be found here and I highly recommend taking a few moments to read what he’s uncovered.

A Floridian myself, I can relate to much of Turner’s writing. I’ve served in private schools throughout my career, and have listened to parents and educators entrenched in public education. I’ve heard and seen examples of terrific public and private school situations as well as the mediocre and downright deplorable.

Schools on both sides of the aisle come in a variety of shapes in sizes. Depending on where you live, a school’s leadership, faculty, and many other variables impact the school environment in significant ways. More specifically, there are underfunded public schools comprised of passionate educators that are doing wonderful work. On the other hand, some “elite” private schools fail to deliver.

Given these realities, it’s no wonder parents are exploring educational alternatives like never before. Some have selected home school. Some have opted for local private schools. Despite the commonly held notion that private school is beyond the reach of many, not every institution approaches collegiate tuition levels. Some, particularly those with an attachment to faith-based institutions, offer education at a more affordable clip.

What’s more, sources of tuition assistance, whether directly through the school of interest or by state-sponsored voucher programs, are readily available as well.

These more traditional options are not the only routes families are considering. The boarding school model has long been accepted throughout certain parts of America – New England most notably. Families seeking an avenue to prepare their student for post-secondary education have opted for boarding school. Of course, these schools don’t come cheap. It isn’t uncommon for a private boarding academy to cost in excess of $50,000 annually.

One emerging trend has seen a sharp rise among international students to American schools. Now, the idea of exchange programs is nothing new. But, if your idea of international students conjures images of this guy:

….. well, you are more than a little outdated.

You see, over the past decade the amount of international students (with China serving as a MAJOR player) demonstrating interest in attending American schools has exploded. In response, many schools (both public and private) have opened their doors to welcome these students as a means to diversity their student population and, unsurprisingly, to generate new revenue streams.

But, Chinese schools routinely test at or near the top of countries across the globe. It’s not just a myth. And while disparities exist in their country as well (the quality of education in their cities is deemed far superior to what is found in rural areas), they surpass what is offered, on balance, in the U.S.

So, why then, given the known state of American schools when compared to our international counterparts, would families consider sending their students to the states to study? The simple answer is, it’s America! Everyone wants to come to America, right? We have better opportunity, a free market economy, and Hollywood!

Sure, those are enticing in their own right – but certainly not the primary reason families seek out an American high school education. The bigger reason relates to an interest in the American university system. Because for all our shortcomings in primary and secondary education, our university system remains the standard by which all others are measured.

The Chinese have some outstanding universities. Peking University and Tsinghua University attract the best and brightest Chinese students each year, and are known as the nation’s equivalent to Harvard and M.I.T.

But for many families, these can’t measure up to what is offered in the West.

International families are allured by the possibility of Ivy-covered buildings at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. They place a high value on the opportunities made available by virtue of a degree from any top tier school. And, for a nation like China, with over a BILLION residents, there are many who possess the means to fork over the necessary dollars to board their students and send them to schools with hefty price tags.

Now, depending on a school’s resources and facilities, many rely on host families to board international students. Typically, monthly stipends are paid through placement agencies (by way of the student’s family) to offset the costs associated with boarding, and families are able to develop cross-cultural relationships that they may never have otherwise.

International study is not a one-way street either. In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley discusses the state of American education and shares the stories of several students who chose to study internationally. These experiences can be rewarding, not solely in the classroom, but socially and through fostering a sense of personal independence.

This doesn’t mean the transition to living in a different culture will come naturally to everyone. Yes, there are those few students who handle the change in stride. But the vast majority struggle – especially early on. Whether a Chinese student coming to America, or an American student traveling overseas, there is a learning curve (no pun intended). The establishment of routines, development of peer relationships, and comfort with living arrangements go a long way in shaping the overall experience.

Overseas learning may seem a hard pill to swallow for some parents, but the trade-offs can be worth their weight in gold. Students who study abroad regularly share how enriching the experience was and how their perspective of the world is so much fuller as a result.

Wherever your family stands in regards to your kids’ education, it is important to remember there are options. These options range from minimal out-of-pocket expense to very expensive. And since you only have one opportunity to provide for your child’s education…..

You might as well make the most of it.


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