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U.S. prep schools push to recruit foreign students

Foreign students have long sought education in the United States, but shifting economic fortunes have quickened the flow and tilted the demographics younger.
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By Michael Alison Chandler
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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.

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"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 U.S. 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 course work and extracurricular activities to enhance college applications.

After 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 U.S. colleges and universities in 2009, fueling a nearly $18 billion international education industry. Federal government data show that 35,000 foreign students attend primary or secondary schools in the United States, 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 U.S. families to reconsider whether they can afford the costs of tuition and lodging. 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 said, but applications from U.S. 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 Chinese language program, also encouraged Farquhar to expand his school's global reach.

"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 10 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.

Fiercely competitive education systems in East Asia are helping stoke 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," coming here 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.

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