More and Younger: Outbound Student Mobility Among Chinese High School Students

In Wuhan, China, [Allen Qu] was placed on a track for average students, a path that would lead to an average university, followed by an average job and an average future. So one day, his parents told him he was going to America … Like many Chinese students, Qu, then 15, came to the U.S. because his grades weren’t high enough to match his family’s ambitions. He and his parents believe that an education in the U.S. will give him better job prospects.

Qu’s story, reported in the Los Angeles Times [1] last November, sheds light on the experiences of many thousands of Chinese children now studying at high schools (and sometimes even elementary schools) across the U.S. The press has gobbled up and reprinted different versions over and over again in the last 14 months during which time The Hechinger Report, The New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today have all taken a crack.

Beyond the inherent drama of teenagers crossing the globe to go to school far from home are substantial numbers, both in terms of lives and dollars: The past few years have seen a dramatic rise in the numbers of Chinese teens studying on their own in the U.S. and Canada. These families pay tens of thousands of dollars annually to send their students far from home, again by the tens of thousands. In light of that trend, this article explores a handful of questions: What are the numbers at play; why are Chinese families sending younger and younger students abroad? What are the costs to families and children? What does the future hold?


In 2016, China had more than one million millionaires [3]. According to one survey, an estimated 83 percent [4] of them plan to send their children to school abroad at an average age of 16. These youngsters will join an overwhelming outbound flow of students of all ages from China, in many cases to the U.S. or Canada. The stats on this mobility are both well-known and worth repeating. Last year, China Daily [5] reported that “China had a total of 1.26 million students overseas as of 2015, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s total number of students studying outside their native country.” The U.S. is these students’ top destination. In 2015/2016, some 328,547, Chinese students enrolled in U.S. schools. Collectively, these students represented 31.5 percent of the overall total number of international students in the U.S. – by far the largest percentage of any contributing country. [1]The OPEN DOORS FACT SHEET: CHINA, INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION, Educational Exchange Data from Open Doors 2016

The age of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. schools has been dropping over time. 2014/15 was the first year that U.S.-enrolled Chinese undergraduates outnumbered Chinese graduate students. Numbers at the secondary level have grown far more dramatically. According to IIE’s 2014 report [6] on international secondary students in the United States, 32.3 percent of international secondary students – some 23,562 students total – in the U.S. in 2013 were Chinese. Wall Street Journal [7] reported that the number of Chinese students attending K-12 schools in the U.S. had quadrupled in just five years, rising from 8,857 to 34,578.


Canada is another top destination, attracting roughly 120,000 Chinese students [9] in 2015. The Canadian government has sought to actively encourage the flow of Chinese high school students: Last May, the Canadian immigration bureau (CIC) initiated a new type of visa for students in grades 10 to 12 – the Secondary Pilot Program [10] – to simplify the visa application procedures and financial requirements. The initiative built on an already robust number of Chinese students studying in China. Figures [11] from the Canadian Bureau for International Education show that 21,519 Chinese students were enrolled in Canadian secondary and primary schools as of 2015-2016 (compared to 57,499 tertiary-level enrollments). Some data indicate that during the first half of 2016, 34 percent of applicants from China [12] attended secondary schools, three percent elementary schools, and 43 percent higher education.[3] In the U.S., international students are allowed to study at public high schools for only one year. By contrast, foreign students who pay their way can attend Canadian public schools indefinitely.

Driver 1: Shifting Parental Ambitions and a New Middle Class

“‘I have only one child and I dearly want her to stay with me,’ the mother of a 16-year-old attending high school in Montreal told the South China Morning Post [13]. “But I know that studying abroad will benefit her future and I can’t be selfish.”

Chinese society remains highly stratified, but the relatively recent emergence of the world’s most populous middle class [14] has resulted in a sharp uptick in the number of Chinese who can afford to send their kids to study abroad at a young age. The strong economy of recent decades has also opened up more diversity in study choices and career options [15]. As this publication reported in 2016, “the rise of [a new] ‘lifestyle market’ [16] has fueled an unprecedented interest in – and market for – fields related to design.” The impact on student interests is notable: “Between 2010/11 and 2014/15, the number of Chinese students enrolled in fine and applied arts programs on U.S. campuses more than tripled — a much faster rate of growth compared to the traditional leading fields of studies, such as engineering, business and management, and math and computer science.”

At the same time, middle class mores have begun to spur a shift in attitudes towards education. It remains highly prized, but the deeply ingrained testing culture, which traditionally values high test scores and memorization over critical thinking and creative problem solving [17] has begun to give way. More and more parents have different expectations for the younger generation than their own parents had. Without dispensing of the vision of social mobility or “gaining face” for the family, some of these parents aspire to enroll their children in schools that will nurture their children’s individualities and interests – China’s “one child” policy has likely contributed to the impulse.http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5039&context=etd [18].

This shift in expectations for children has been accompanied, in many cases, by a shift in expectations for school. However, the educational pattern in China remains an unchanged and seemingly unshakable system, a force which drives parents with means to find another solution: study abroad.

Driver 2: Academic Competition and Limited Higher Ed Capacity at Home

“There are no good times in the year leading up to the [gaokao] exam, only bad times,” one international student from China told Vice [19]. “It decides your future and your life. Everyone is incredibly nervous.”

In 2015, more than 9 million graduating students in China sat for the nation’s notoriously difficult college entrance exam, the gaokao. In 2015, only 4.7 percent [20] were admitted the 112 top-ranked institutions. These numbers and percentages are consistent year to year. As this publication noted last year [21], scoring well has lifelong consequences: “Graduates of top institutions have the ability to pursue postgraduate study in China or abroad, and to obtain high-level employment… The consequences of being tracked into lower tier institutions can be harsh,” leaving ambitious students struggling to find work even after completing post-secondary degrees. The effect of this narrow shot at success is often compared to a “single plank bridge,” and the pressure to get into a good university inundates every single decision along the path.  Attendance at extracurricular courses (or cram schools) [22] after-school and on weekends for years on end is an unspoken mandate. Parents, seeking to position their kids for success, pay as much as USD $8,000 [23] for these cram schools. They move across cities and purchase real estate in top school districts, often before children enter junior high school, primary school, or even kindergarten. One report shows that the housing price within a magnet school district in Beijing exceeds the average local price by 46 percent [24].

Tertiary level education in the West offers one of the few palatable off ramps to China’s own rigidly stratified [25] and highly competitive higher education system. Prestigious institutions in the United States – Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, as well as public institutions such as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Southern California, Michigan State University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and even the State University of New York at Stony Brook – are all top options among Chinese students.[5]http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/04/the-most-chinese-schools-in-america-rankings-data-education-china-u/ In Canada, choice schools include McGill University, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and others.

Driver 3: The International School Conundrum

 “Compared with China’s traditional education path, we consider the Western educational philosophy and system to be better,” the mother of one six-year-old enrolled in an international school in Beijing told the Global Times [26]. “It means we will be stuck on the international education path.”

For Chinese students aiming to pursue higher education in the U.S., two pathways are common. One is to enroll in an international program or international high school that offers IB, A-Level or Canadian or American curriculum. The other is to attend an actual high school, or even elementary school, in the West.  China now hosts the largest number of international schools in the world. Together with the international divisions embedded in regular schools, these international programs are often branded as providing access to “international elite education” and “world top university admissions.” But the reality is that these schools are of highly variable quality [27]. Not all train students in the linguistic or other skills they need, and many are run by agents seeking to make a quick return on investment, rather than teach children effectively.


Moreover, the boom in international schools in China is still insufficient to address demand. Spots in college programs such as IB, A-Level or AP programs are highly coveted, while admissions requirements are steep. For years, the required admissions score for these international divisions’ were below the regular admissions score. Not so anymore: The international divisions of public schools have raised the cut-off score for the zhongkao (high school entrance exam) due to the growing number of top students seeking placement; in many cases they are now higher than the standard admission requirements.

The cost of private international schools, meanwhile, is another gating cause for concern. In 2016, the South China Morning Post [29] reported on a survey of 707 international schools in 98 countries around the world which “found that the median tuition for a sixth-grade student at an international school in China is [USD] $36,400 a year” – the highest in the world.  “[A] major challenge for parents is … doubts [about] values of the expensive investment including tuition and expenses of participation in such programs,” notes one 2014 paper on the perceived and real value of these international college preparatory programs for Chinese students headed to American universities. “The investment value is mainly measured by student outcomes,” i.e., admission to and graduation from university.http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5039&context=etd [18].

And depending on how effectively parents have managed to navigate the confusing labyrinth of international school options, investments in education may or may not pan out. “The characteristics of each type of college preparation programs are not clear to Chinese parents. Facing the huge… disordered market of college preparation programs to study abroad, Chinese high school students planning to study abroad and their parents are confused when making decisions.”[7] [30]Ibid

From a parent’s perspective, these international programs have another short-coming: They function as yet another “single-plank bridge,” leaving many students by the wayside. Many schools do not cover China’s national curriculum, and students who do not do well on the standardized admissions tests required by Western institutions have few options in China. They cannot sit for the huikao, China’s academic proficiency test, or the gaokao , and thus miss out on the opportunity to attend the majority of universities at home. The rising prevalence of unvetted international high schools further raises these stakes.

A recent government crackdown on Western influenced education has further amplified concerns about whether China-based international schools can adequately prepare students to head West. In 2015, China’s Education Minister Yuan Guiren gave a talk with a guiding theme of suppressing western ideas in university classrooms [31] – an initiative which quickly filtered into other parts of China’s education system. The government has recently sought to crack down on Western influences at the primary and junior high and high school levels. New curriculum regulations in international schools in China, for instance, call for greater integration of core Chinese subjects [32], reportedly prompting more parents [33]to consider sending kids overseas earlier, for fear of the political agenda takes priority over quality of education.

The (Potential) Costs: Isolation, Dislocation, and A Lack of Options

Due to federal visa regulations that limit international students’ attendance at public school to one year, most Chinese teens who come to the U.S. for high school end up at often costly private schools. Families often hire consultants or agents to help them find and apply to schools, often at a cost of USD $30,000 – $40,000 [34]. The tuition and living costs for young students are also steep. Bloomberg [35] and other sources estimate it at about USD $60,000 annually. The emotional toll is often similarly high. Linguistic skills, lack of familiarity with classroom norms, the effort to form social bonds and friendships – all can be disorienting. In February, The New York Times published a close portrayal of one member of China’s so-called “parachute generation” [34] of high school students living abroad. The story highlighted the challenges of integrating into a new culture, tracing the student’s attempts to manage through fire drills, school cliques, and, most poignantly, holding on, as the student says, to his own “Chinese style and character.”

To address these types of cultural and linguistic challenges, some Chinese and American high schools have established 1+2 or 2+1 partnership programs, designed to allow students to complete the first part of their secondary schooling in China before continuing on to an American partner school. Given the fact that integration is the make-or-break proposition, these programs are of critical importance. Attendance at a U.S. high school does not always guarantee admission to an institution that carries much weight back home – or to any institution. As one school administrator told Foreign Policy [36], “[These students’] goals are to attend a U.S. university, and in order to do that they need some level of socialization.” The new generation of hybrid programs may help to provide that.

Future Prospects

As of 2015/16, the number of Chinese students attending elementary and high school in the U.S. outstrips any but the total numbers from the top four senders (China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea). In Canada, Chinese elementary and high school students take up more slots than the total numbers from any countries other than China and India. The numbers so far show no signs of slowing, but there are forces at work that may counterbalance the trend.

A shift in the perceived value of an American vs. a Chinese degree may be one such force. In the past, Chinese students and their parents tended to view a degree from a Western university as a competitive advantage in a tight Chinese job market. However, in late 2016, the China Economic Review [37] reported that, in a recent survey by the Center for China & Globalization, an independent think tank:

Nearly 70 percent of Chinese students who returned after studying abroad said they were “unsatisfied” with job opportunities at home because an overseas degree no longer guarantees them better pay than those who studied in China... Over two-thirds of those surveyed… said their annual salaries were comparable to their peers in similar positions who studied at home…  An increase in the number of returnees also means that foreign graduates are no longer a rare commodity in the intensely competitive Chinese job market.

Improvements in China’s own higher education system are another contributing factor, say observers. Now in the midst of a ten-year effort [38] to raise the profile of Chinese institutions in international university rankings, China has launched quality-focused efforts, like the World Class 2.0 Project [39], which focus on quality instruction and research capabilities. Chinese universities, meanwhile, are focused on multi-pronged internationalization efforts; some 2469 [40] Sino-foreign cooperation institutes and programs as of November 2016, double the number in 2010, seek to blend the best of Chinese and Western educational approaches.

“China has pumped enormous resources into its graduate education capacity,” IIE’s Peggy Blumenthal told the magazine Science [41]. With more Western-trained professors on campus, “[Chinese institutions] are beginning to teach more like we do, publish like we do, and operate their labs like we do.”

At the same time, academic pressure on younger students in China may be decreasing, and lessening the impulse for Chinese parents to opt out of the system quite so early. Reforms to both the gaokao and undergraduate admissions seek to reduce the influence of the test, and to give secondary students in China at least some academic autonomy. In the new 3+3 model, for instance, students do not have to select between a sciences or arts stream in high school. They also have more freedom to select gakao test subjects: In addition to three mandatory subjects, Chinese, English, and Mathematics, they can choose three additional subjects from a pool of six – geography, politics, history, physics, chemistry, and biology.

These factors aside, the aura of a U.S. or Canadian degree is likely to linger for years to come. But in an era of rapidly shifting geopolitical norms [42], Western institutions that have not done due diligence in identifying, and recruiting from, other emerging markets around the globe [43] may face a reckoning as Chinese students identify new, more cost-effective options that are closer to home.


2 Farrugia, C. Center for Academic Mobility Research, Institute of International Education, “Charting New Pathways to Higher Education: International Secondary Students in the United States,” July 2014
3 In the U.S., international students are allowed to study at public high schools for only one year. By contrast, foreign students who pay their way can attend Canadian public schools indefinitely.
http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5039&context=etd [18].
5 http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/04/the-most-chinese-schools-in-america-rankings-data-education-china-u/
7 Ibid