As American high schools start their academic year this September, it is expected to be another record year for enrollments by Chinese students. China's booming middle class is growing wealthier, and many parents and students are taking extraordinary steps to get a unique educational experience - even if it means paying a hefty price.
Grace Liu, 17, grew up in Tianjin, a city of 14 million people on China’s east coast. This year she is a junior at a high school in America’s Deep South.
“The [population] here is very small. The people are really nice and we say ‘hi’ to each other even though we don’t know each other. The people here really help me a lot, and the environment here is really good,” said Liu.
Liu is enrolled at the Rabun Gap Nacoochee school in Rabun Gap, a small town in Georgia. She is one of more than 30,000 Chinese at American high schools, many of whom pay tuition of upwards of $50,000 to attend school in the United States. Anthony Sgro, head of the Rabun Gap School, said the number of applications from students in China is way up.
“We’ve always had international students. The Chinese students didn’t start to arrive until the 1980s. They have come in significantly, significantly great numbers over the last 15 years,” said Sgro.
Last year American schools welcomed 50 times more Chinese students than they did just eight years ago.
Many are from China’s growing middle class, who want well-rounded educations and an edge in competition for slots at America’s most prestigious universities. Studying abroad can also mean an escape from the intense competition at schools in China, where rote memorization is common and students have less time for hobbies or sports.
The rapid growth of foreign students has led to schools in even small towns like Rabun feeling the impact. Sgro said the influx has met with some resistance in Rabun.
“That was the argument when the Chinese started coming in large numbers. ‘Why are we educating our enemies?’ And my response to people around this is the world in which we grew up in is very different from the world these students are growing up in today. When our students open up The Wall Street Journal or watch CBS News at night, they’ll see a write-up about China, and they’ll see a write up about Shanghai, and they’ll know five kids from there. And it brings it home, it helps them understand that it is not but a plane flight away, and that they have to be engaged in what’s going on around them,” said Sgro.
Yvette Yang, 17, said she and her Chinese classmates are part of a new, very global, future.
“What I am thinking is that things have changed, and the world has changed. People are looking forward, and they are not looking backwards,” said Liu.
The number of international students attending university in the United States is also reaching record numbers, with 800,000 foreign students studying at American colleges in 2012.