U.S. Prep Schools Push to Recruit Foreign Students

Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, March 30, 2010

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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.

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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.

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English-speaking countries vie for the academically driven travelers. Canadian schools, strapped by 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 in August with a fife and drum troupe and a barbecue 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.

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