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‘High pressure, high stress’: Chinese students reflect on international admissions following scandal

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Songchen Yao ’23 was anxiously awaiting the result of his Stanford application in his hometown of Shenzhen, China early last spring when he heard the news about what would become the largest college admissions scandal to ever be prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Stanford was among many elite universities with individuals implicated in the scandal.

As the story unfolded over the ensuing months, the public learned that scandal ringleader William Rick Singer’s clientele also included the family of a Chinese then-sophomore, Yusi Zhao, at Stanford. No member of the Chinese student’s family has been charged in the case, and none were named in the Department of Justice’s affidavit. 

Initially, “in early February, the Chinese public viewed [the scandal] with cynicism” and criticized the corruption and inequality in the U.S. system, Yao said. But “as the focus switched to this particular case, it caused a lot of concerns among the Chinese student community,” Yao added. The news alarmed his peers who speculated that U.S. universities would be more cautious in reviewing their applications in the future.

A total of 51 people, including high-profile celebrities and businesspeople, local Bay Area parents and Stanford’s former varsity sailing coach John Vandemoer, among others, have been charged in the case. To increase their clients’ chance of admission to elite universities, Singer and his team facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and bribed coaches and administrators to nominate his clients as recruited athletes.

However, two factors in particular set apart the Stanford student’s case from the others. First, the sum of money paid by the Zhao family — $6.5 million — was by far the largest known in the scandal, more than five times greater than any other American family. 

And second, Zhao’s Chinese nationality and her parents’ ties with a giant pharmaceutical company sparked the media’s interest in the student’s family background. The following report on Sherry Guo, another Chinese student implicated in the scandal, added to the public’s interest in affluent Chinese families sending their kids to elite U.S. universities.

The media’s portrayal of the student sparked a heated debate on the representation of Chinese and international students in the U.S. 

“I tried to persuade both my American and non-American friends not to place a judgment too quickly,” said Celia Chen ’20, who is from China and was co-president of the Forum for American-Chinese Exchange (FACES) last year, of which Zhao was also a member.

She said that the media coverage of Zhao misconstrued international students to the public. 

“I don’t think the student’s family circumstance is representative of the general Chinese population at Stanford,” Chen, who attended a public school in Hangzhou, the capital of China’s Zhejiang Province, added.

Another Chinese student, who was granted anonymity due to privacy concerns, echoed Chen’s view. 

“News like this narrows people’s visions to our families and backgrounds and materialistic things like that, and it made [the student] an easy target,” said the student, who will be referred to as Alex.

‘An international-style of education’

According to the Brookings Institute’s 2018 report, while “total enrollment of international students has increased” over the past few years, “educational opportunities have been concentrated on foreign students from upper- or middle-class families,” especially those from China, India and South Korea.

Other research shows that the recent growth in the Chinese economy increased the domestic demand for “an international-style of education,” which provides an American or European-style curriculum, like AP or IB. For many wealthy Chinese individuals, an American college education is  an attractive alternative to the “Gaokao” system in China, which is a highly competitive nation-wide exam given annually that determines students’ placement at Chinese universities based on their score. 

According to the same research, more Chinese parents, who can now afford to pay higher tuition costs, are looking for secondary education that can prepare their children for American and British universities. 

Yao attended Shenzhen Middle School in Guangdong province. The so-called “international department” at Chinese public schools provide what Yao described as “a hybrid program,” where the Chinese national curriculum was mixed in with the American Advanced Placement curriculum. Students like Yao comprise about 34% of about 372,000 students in China enrolled in “an international style of education.”

The rest of the students attend international Chinese-owned Private Schools (iCPS), which have been rapidly growing in number. The Chinese government’s recent amendment to regulations governing private education market has also allowed more opportunities for foreign education brands in the U.S. and U.K. in China. Over the past five years, the number of private international schools in China increased from 629 to 857 with a 63.6% increase in student enrollment, according to data provider ISC Research. 

The King’s School, Canterbury, a prestigious independent co-ed boarding school in U.K., will open its first overseas branch in Shenzhen in Autumn 2019. Experts say these private international schools can better prepare Chinese students for overseas application by providing them with education similar to that of the U.S. or U.K.

However, even after sending their kids to international schools, some Chinese parents end up reaching out to third-party educational consultants to assist their children in navigating foreign college admissions processes.

“Even when their kids are capable enough, if the parents want to get enough information, they would choose [to hire] consultants,” Yao said.

“Of course there’s still a huge market in the US [for educational consulting], but in China it’s so much more intense and starts from elementary age with school applications and tutoring and tests; it’s a high pressure, high stress environment,” said Jessica Mi ’21.

Mi was a program leader for the social impact consulting company Keru, which worked with Chinese high school students on service learning projects in rural China.

One Stanford alumnus, who requested anonymity because he is applying to graduate schools in the U.S., works as an educational consultant in China and echoed Mi’s view. He described the job as “a more involved version of what college counselors do in the U.S.,” which entails reviewing the student’s background, helping them brainstorm and revise application essays, and “formulate overall school application strategy based on the individual needs of each student.”

“Most of the parents I encounter know very little about the actual process of applying to U.S. universities,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. Without independent access to information, many Chinese parents rely on the information provided by parents of previously accepted students or education consulting agencies. “There is simply too little information to make an informed decision based on anything other than personal references and the advice of former students.”

According to Yao, educational consultants like Singer can easily take advantage of Chinese parents. “Some Chinese people said the family paid more because they were Chinese,” he said. 

“The parents’ generation doesn’t understand anything about this process so there are a lot of scams,” echoed Mi. “There’s no quality assurance; rich people can and will just throw money out there without knowing what it does for their child.”

Days after Zhao’s name and her and her family’s involvement in the scandal became public, Zhao’s mother Xiaohong Zhao’s lawyer said Xiaohong believed she had made a donation to Stanford rather than to Singer’s charity.

Though Alex also agreed that information disparity is one of the driving forces behind the educational consulting market in China, they do not think that should give parents the excuse of being overbearing with their children as they apply for college. 

“[Chinese] parents are very insecure. Everyone is stressed out about college, but parents need to learn that their kids are going to college, not the parents. Do everything you should do as a parent, and don’t do any more. I understand why parents act the way they do, but that doesn’t mean they should do it,” they added.

What should be done?

“So-called ‘international’s privilege’ definitely needs attention,” Chen said. 

Currently, international students are not eligible for need-blind financial aid from Stanford. Last year, the Coalition for International Students’ Financial Aid released a petition calling on providing need-blind financial aid for international students. Chen helped co-author the petition. 

“It is important to bring international students from diverse backgrounds to this campus based on their merits,” Chen said. 

“Universities can also reach out to smaller cities in China and other parts of the world, instead of just taking students from metropolitan areas. It’s going to be very much like a treasure hunt. But if universities have resources, they could extend connections to less-established schools,” Yao said. 

According to Stanford’s admissions office, each year a Stanford admissions officer visits China with officers from other colleges. Most recently, Stanford’s officer visited 13 cities in China. Ten of them are considered as the so-called “Tier-1” cities. The tier system is an unofficial classification of Chinese cities. A higher tier indicates that the city has a higher income-level, larger population and better infrastructure.

“[At Stanford], there are more minority students and more people from diverse backgrounds,” Chen said. “I hope Stanford and its community understand and embrace the values brought by international students.”  

Some quotes from Alex were given in Chinese and were translated into English. Some were lightly edited in translation.

This article was corrected to include the reason for granting anonymity to the college consultant.

Contact Won Gi Jung at jwongi ‘at’ stanford.edu and Michelle Bao at msbao ‘at’ stanford.edu