Chinese Demand for US High School Education on the Rise

The following is the second article in a series by Dr. James P. Cross on educational exchanges between the US and China. For Dr. Cross' initial thoughts on the importance of this cross-cultural dialogue, read "US-China Education Exchanges Present Opportunities and Challenges."

With over 120,000 Chinese college students in the United Stated this past year it is now well documented that as a country China has the single largest number of international college students attending US colleges and universities. These students are contributing over $4 billion to the US economy, adding diversity and revenue to an increasing number of American colleges. While most Chinese students traditionally came to the US for graduate degrees in the STEM disciplines (Science Technology, Education and Math), over recent years we have seen a dramatic growth in Chinese undergraduate students. For example between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 undergraduate enrollments increased 45% compared to only a 15.6% increase for graduate student enrollments.

This growth in undergraduate enrollments however, is creating challenges for both students and the hosting colleges as students try to adapt to the US method of inquiry based, interactive learning with a heavy emphasis on communication and problem solving. Both Chinese parents and US colleges are responding in a number of ways to better prepare aspiring undergraduates to be successful in a US college environment. These include expanded English language training and support both in China and the US, bridge programs that introduce Chinese students to American education and culture, summer camps and increasingly a demand on the Chinese side for a US high school education for their child.

The move to push a US style education into the more formative years of a Chinese student's education seems to be gaining momentum.  There is growing recognition among Chinese parents and students that scoring well on standardized tests such as the TOEFL, SAT and ACT does not guarantee success in a US college classroom and that Chinese students need to start earlier in their academic preparation for a US college.

Chinese and United States government data shows that numbers are indeed on the rise. For example, the US Department of Homeland Security reports that 6,725 Chinese students went to study in secondary schools in the US in 2011 compared to only 65 in 2006. The Chinese Association for International Understanding states that Chinese high school students studying abroad now represent 22.6% of the total number of all Chinese students studying abroad. At the China International Education Exhibition Tour in Beijing in early March 15% of the nearly 400 exhibitors present represented high schools, according to China Daily. While Australia, Canada and Britain are popular destinations the US market share seems to be trending upwards. One US high school is taking the best of a US high school preparation to China opening opportunities for even more Chinese students to get an early start on their path to a US college without having to leave the country and their families at such a young age.

Vermont International Academy (VIA), a Vermont approved independent school, recently opened a campus in Shanghai in partnership with Datong High School. Two more are slated to open in Shanghai and Tianjin in fall 2013. The concept is unique, but simple: provide the best of both a US and Chinese education to high school students. VIA combines a full US high school set of courses and requirements taught by US licensed teachers, plus a number of Chinese courses taught by Datong High School teachers. In this way, the Chinese students improve their English language skills and learn to be successful in a US classroom without losing touch with their Chinese language and cultural roots. In addition, the program offers opportunities for US high school students to spend a month, semester or year at VIA taking regular American high school courses in English and to study Chinese language and culture including tai chi and calligraphy. Having American students in the classroom also helps the Chinese students. Because of this focus on cultural exchange for US students, the US department of State recognized VIA - Datong as a supporting school of the 100,000 Strong Initiative to promote opportunities for more US students to study in China.

So how is it working? During interviews with VIA students this past month one response was unanimous: students believed the US college system was the best in the world and they wanted to study there. They cited that the strengths of VIA included academic freedom, the curriculum, personal attention from the teachers and access to teachers, English language training and a pathway to a US college education. One student specifically noted that he really liked the fact that he could study both an American curriculum and still take Chinese language and culture courses. The students also noted challenges with the program that included the stricter rules and policies connected with being an American high school within a Chinese high school. For example, the students need to follow the host Chinese high school policies in the same way as the other Chinese students including wearing uniforms, respecting curfews, restricted phone and internet access, etc.

From an American student perspective, the program should help the Chinese students to be better prepared. Michael Zhang, a junior at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, worked as an intern this past summer with VIA to develop a model United Nations simulation program for the first batch of VIA Chinese students in Shanghai. Michael noted that when working with Chinese students he immediately noticed differences between their classroom attitudes and behaviors and those of American students. "Despite their intellectual capabilities, the rigid and structured education that they were earlier receiving caused them to be extremely cautious, shy, and almost afraid to participate in class" he said, adding "It was challenging to encourage them to take academic risks and deviate from commonly held or course-guided opinions." By the end of the program, however, he noticed significant progress noting that the VIA program "provided an encouraging environment and trained students to participate and involve themselves more in class, allowing them to build confidence and self-assurance that is crucial to succeeding in the US educational system."

Overall, the increase in the numbers of Chinese students studying in US high school programs in both the US and China should bode well, both for the students wanting to be successful in a US college environment and for the US colleges interested in attracting Chinese students who are prepared for their classrooms.

Dr. James P. Cross is Associate Provost and Senior International Officer at Champlain College.

Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition. For the fourth year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "America's Best Colleges,” and a “Best Value School” and is ranked in the top 100 “Regional Universities of the North” and in the top 25 for “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2019 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2019 College of Distinction. For more information, visit