Should Chinese families finance American public education?

Updated: 2011-08-01 16:35

By Patrick Mattimore (

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This fall a small public high school in Millinocket, Maine (less than 200 students) is hoping to enroll 60 students from mainland China. The one-year price tag for the Chinese students will be approximately $24,000 apiece.

The school, Stearns High, has a pedestrian academic program. The percentage of juniors at Stearns meeting state standards in writing, reading, and math was between 31 and 41 percent in the latest round of testing for which scores are available, all under the state's averages. In science the students did a little better with 48 percent proficiency. Maine also has the lowest average test scores of any state in the US on the SAT, but that is partially explained because the state requires juniors to take the test.

Stearns High is in an economically depressed area. The region's last paper mill closed in April. Millinocket's population peaked in 1970, and has been in a steady decline ever since, now hovering around 5,000. The high school has less than a third of the students it had in the 1970s.

Millinocket's superintendent of schools, Dr. Kenneth Smith, appears to be adopting a desperate last gasp measure to try and save a run-of-the mill high school.

Smith has said that Stearns is planning to add Advanced Placement courses in Physics, Biology, Economics, and English and an SAT review course to accommodate the Chinese students. Presently, Stearns has only one AP course and no SAT prep class. It's questionable whether Stearns will launch those new classes five weeks from now.

Smith hopes to hire an ESL (English as a second language) teacher, preferably with a Mandarin background, and possibly a Chinese psychologist. The principal at Stearns High for the last two years recently left, so Stearns will also need to hire a new principal and get these people on board with the high school's ambitious new programs. Good luck!

According to the Portland Press Herald, Smith is the first public school chief in Maine to launch a major effort to recruit foreign students.

But Stearns High is no anomaly. Reporting for the Bangor Daily News earlier this month, Nick Sambides wrote that Stearns is just one among several Maine schools recruiting Chinese students. Moreover, Sambides wrote that high schools in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia and Washington, will have dozens of Chinese students enrolled in September.

The basic questions are whether American public high schools should be recruiting international students to take on the government's financial responsibility of providing education and whether Chinese families should be footing the bill.

Recruiting international students has already become a prevalent practice with America's state colleges. For example, the American education periodical, Inside Higher Ed, reported last week that the State University of New York system had instituted an aggressive policy using agents to recruit international students. The goal of SUNY's plan is to increase its total foreign student enrollment by more than 13,000 over five years. International students pay more than 2.5 times the tuition that New York residents pay ($13,380 versus $4,970).

Daniel Golden won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for a series of articles on admissions practices at elite American universities. In May, Golden criticized the unscrupulous behavior of some agents who are recruiting Chinese students to American colleges. (

A mover behind the recruitment of Chinese students to American high schools is Suzanne Fox, President of Fox International Consulting Services. Fox works throughout the US, helping schools get systems in place for successful international programs.

Fox has been instrumental in advising Stearns High.

Stearns is the first public school with which Fox has worked and although the program hasn’t even started, Fox is hosting a workshop this week for Maine educators entitled: Starting from Scratch: Building A Successful International Student Program: A collaborative workshop hosted by Fox Intercultural Consulting Services and Stearns High School.

In her promotional materials for the event, Fox writes, “Millinocket started from scratch to build a thoughtful, well-integrated program.”

Fox contends other schools should look at Millinocket as a model of how to do things right when recruiting Chinese students. This is a case of Fox and Stearns striking while the iron’s hot, but Chinese families should wait before investing in this stable.

The author teaches American law courses in China through a masters program jointly sponsored by Tsinghua University and Temple University. He was a high school teacher for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area where he also practiced law. The views expressed here are those of the author's. They do not reflect necessarily those of China Daily website.