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Chinese seek freedom, edge at US high schools

Wednesday - 8/13/2014, 2:00pm  ET

In this Thursday, July 10, 2014 photo, Lisa Li, a high school student at the U.S. prep school Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., sits outside the Stephen Robert Campus Center on the Brown University Campus in Providence, RI. High schoolers want to escape the rat race in China, where students often study late into the night with little opportunity for extracurricular activities. They also believe studying in the U.S. will help them snag coveted spots at more prestigious American colleges. Li said she felt like a failure if she didn’t get the top test score in her class in Beijing. Her academic work in the U.S. is also rigorous, but she says she doesn’t feel the same kind of pressure, and is now encouraged to explore other interests - like music composition. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

DIDI TANG
Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) -- After getting a glimpse of the endless cramming for China's grueling college entrance exams from the seniors in his high school, 16-year-old Zhang Kaisheng decided to take a different path.

Like a growing number of Chinese teenagers, Zhang plans to enroll this fall in a private U.S. high school where he and his parents hope he will get a more well-rounded -- if far more expensive -- education. Tuition, room and board can cost around $40,000 -- three to four times more than an elite private school in China.

"I feel like the U.S. education fits me better and will allow me to do things I like to do," said Zhang, who loves playing basketball.

With more than 333,000 of its students in U.S. colleges and graduate schools, China has long been the top feeder of international students in America. Now Chinese high school students are following suit in astonishing fashion: Last year U.S. schools welcomed 50 times more of them than they did just eight years earlier.

The high schoolers want to escape the rat race at home, where students often study late into the night with little opportunity for extracurricular activities. They also believe studying in the U.S. will help them snag coveted spots at more prestigious American colleges.

"The competition has grown fiercer, and there has been pressure to go to U.S. high schools to gain an edge," said Xu Yi, who runs a tutoring and consulting agency for Chinese students called Focus Education.

Though international surveys have shown that Chinese students perform well ahead of their American peers in subjects such as math and reading, top-level U.S. schools remain highly regarded among educated Chinese for developing critical thinking and communication skills.

"China boasts solid elementary and secondary education, especially in math, but it lacks innovation," said Wang Huiyao, president of Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization. "Chinese students may be able to memorize formulas but they lack 'soft skills' such as people skills and the ability to communicate with global language and culture."

Young Chinese with U.S. college degrees usually can expect broader career prospects, as China has become increasingly globally minded, with more opportunities for foreign-educated youth.

Last fall, the U.S. issued 31,889 F-1 student visas to Chinese youth planning to attend American high schools, up from just 639 in 2005. China also has overtaken South Korea as the No. 1 origin country of students to U.S. high schools, with its elite families leading the way as their children are vying for spots in prestigious U.S. preparatory schools.

China's rising financial might is fueling the rise.

"Chinese families did not have the choices in the past, and they did not have the financial means, but with the rise of the middle class, Chinese families now can scour worldwide for schools," Wang said.

Chinese parents see the hefty cost of private U.S. high schools as a worthy investment. "If he can develop a multitude of skills and be a well-rounded person, it would be money well spent," said Zhang Kaisheng's mother, Wang Lihong, the president of a state bank branch in Beijing.

For many students, the chance to study in the U.S. opens up new opportunities. Riley Peng, the daughter of a successful entrepreneur, disliked the emphasis on rote memorization in China, and now is engaged in a variety of classes and extracurricular activities at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut, including running on the cross-country team.

"There are many things I now get to experiment with," she said.

Peng's friend Lisa Li, who attends Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, said she felt like a failure if she didn't get the top test score in her class in Beijing. Her academic work in the U.S. is also rigorous, but she says she doesn't feel the same kind of pressure, and is now encouraged to explore other interests -- like music composition.

"It is so worth it, although it is highly challenging," Li said. "U.S. prep schools are demanding intellectually, but they also emphasize creativity. It has helped me find my direction -- turning the impossible into possibilities."

Her mother, Jin Min, is pleased. "Now she has creativity, instead of being a copying machine of knowledge, or an encyclopedia," she said.

It helps that teens from affluent Chinese families are often well versed in English and American culture. Chinese students usually are required to demonstrate English proficiency before attending American high schools, although some U.S. schools offer remedial courses.

In any case, it's a big adjustment to study far from home. Experts warn parents to think twice before sending their children abroad and urge them to find proper guardianship or choose reputable boarding schools.

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