Area private schools opening doors to more international students

Foreign students have long sought education in the United States, but shifting economic fortunes have quickened the flow and tilted the demographics younger.
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; 5:20 PM

When Dixi Wu finished middle school in Kunming, China, last year, she had a hard decision to make. The skilled violinist and top-ranked student tested into one of the most competitive high schools in her province. Yet Bullis School in suburban Maryland, faced with falling applications during the depressed economy, also wanted her.

"I'm only 15," she said. "To go all the way to the other half of the world, I was scared."

Easing her decision was a personal interview with Bullis's headmaster, Tom Farquhar, who on his first tour of China met with dozens of students and addressed crowds of parents interested in giving their children a running start toward a prized American college diploma.

Universities and some boarding schools long have drawn heavily from overseas, but aggressive international efforts are becoming more common for other American prep schools eager to recruit from among rising numbers of East Asian students capable of paying full fare. More private schools are posting ads in foreign newspapers, redesigning their Web sites in multiple languages and taking part in recruiting fairs, where they promise to provide language training and the right mix of coursework and extracurricular activities to enhance college applications.

After the meeting with Farquhar, Dixi chose Bullis. Now she is reading Kurt Vonnegut in her English class, studying debate and political cartoons in history, and running track for the Bullis Bulldogs. The cost to her parents, both telecommunications executives, is close to $40,000 a year for tuition and living expenses.

At a time when many Made in the USA products struggle in the global marketplace, American diplomas are more coveted than ever. More than 650,000 international students were enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2009, fueling a nearly $18 billion international education industry. Federal government data show an additional 35,000 attend primary or secondary schools, not including one-year cultural exchange programs or short-term language courses.

For American private schools, the rising interest from East Asia comes at a key moment. The recession has forced many American families to reconsider whether they can afford tuition and lodging bills. Charitable giving and endowments also have suffered. Many schools are grappling with fewer applications and, in the worst cases, the possibility of closure.

Bullis was not in such dire straits, school officials say, but applications from American students dipped last year while demand was up in China. The Potomac school, on an 80-acre wooded campus, started admitting students from China several years earlier with help from an education agent. The academic successes of the initial students, as well as the introduction of a new Chinese language program, also encouraged Farquhar to expand the global reach of his school.

"We wanted to increase awareness at our school of this very important country far away," Farquhar said.

After his recruiting tour last year, he offered admission to ten students. Seven accepted, including Dixi, who said goodbye to her parents and their modern high-rise apartment and moved in with a Bullis social studies teacher and her family in a quiet suburb.

Fiercely competitive education systems in East Asia are helping to fuel a culture of study abroad. The number of families looking overseas for an alternate way up the career ladder has dropped in Korea recently but grown in Vietnam and boomed in China, where such students are called "xiao liu xue sheng," or "little exchange students." In the United States, they have been called "parachute kids," dropping in alone to pursue their degrees.

The financial strain for many parents is intense. Study abroad can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for tuition and living expenses. But many consider it a reliable investment because Western degrees and English fluency are highly valued in the job market at home, said Min Zhou, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied parachute kids from East Asia.

"In China, if you fail that one exam you are done," Zhou said, referring to the annual college entrance exam.

English-speaking countries vie for the academically driven travelers. Canadian schools, strapped with declining enrollments, have formed an association to strengthen recruiting efforts abroad. In Australia, where international education revenue has surpassed that of tourism, specific government agencies oversee the foreign scholars.

In the United States, public high schools charge tuition for those on student visas and limit enrollment to one year, so most attend private schools. Sandy Spring Friends School in Montgomery County has 54 foreign students, including 11 who arrived from China in January after a fall recruiting fair. Montrose Christian School in Rockville increased its foreign enrollment from about 30 students to 44 this year and appointed its first dean of international students. At Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax City, 31 teens have student visas, up from 13 five years ago.

Arriving alone and with limited English skills, foreign students add new and weighty responsibilities to schools. Some schools provide extensive English-language training and support; others require applicants to pass English proficiency tests or find their own housing.

At Fairfax Christian School in Vienna, foreign students make up well over half of the high school and a quarter of the middle school. New arrivals were greeted last August with a fife and drum troupe and a barbeque on the school's front lawn. The curriculum includes courses in English as a foreign language, and grounding in American culture, the Bible and free-market economics.

The school, which charges $14,400 for tuition, plus thousands more for transportation and lodging, largely caters to Asian industrialist families, said director Jo Thoburn. Her Advanced Placement economics class last year had 23 students whose parents owned 35 factories in Asia. "This is not your typical group," she said.

Min So Kim, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Chungbuk, Korea, explained her parents' decision to send her to live with relatives in Haymarket this way: "My father hopes I study English very well and become a famous person."

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