How Rich Chinese Parents Get Their Kids Into U.S. Colleges
Americans aren’t the only one paying for the process.
$90,000 can still buy you a lot in China, whether it's paying 25 minimum wage workers for a year or four nights of ultraluxury accommodation at Beijing’s Bulgari Hotel (with some change left over). If you know where to look, it can also help buy your way into a U.S. college—by any means necessary. That means a lot to Chinese parents, for whom an education in the United States is seen as a way to guarantee a child’s future. And it means a lot of money for the people involved in helping them get there.
$90,000 can still buy you a lot in China, whether it’s paying 25 minimum wage workers for a year or four nights of ultraluxury accommodation at Beijing’s Bulgari Hotel (with some change left over). If you know where to look, it can also help buy your way into a U.S. college—by any means necessary. That means a lot to Chinese parents, for whom an education in the United States is seen as a way to guarantee a child’s future. And it means a lot of money for the people involved in helping them get there.
Last week, the news broke that dozens of wealthy American parents had paid up to $1.2 million apiece in bribes to guarantee their children places at top universities. Methods of cheating included doctoring images to claim that their children were accomplished athletes, falsifying SAT results, and lying about ethnic heritage in order to take advantage of affirmative action policies.
That’s a familiar story for Chinese. There have been numerous reported cases of students caught cheating the system. Last week, five California residents were arrested on charges of helping more than 40 Chinese nationals obtain student visas by taking their English tests for them, using fake passports in the process. The scheme was allegedly masterminded by 23-year-old Liu Cai, an international student at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2018, professors at the University of California, Santa Barbara, complained that many Chinese students lacked adequate English language proficiency, and it’s common for international students who have been coached into U.S. universities to struggle to keep up.
The man at the center of the U.S. scandal was William Singer, founder of a college-preparatory business known as The Key. He told a federal court in Boston that he created a “side door” of admissions that guaranteed access to top institutions. That was an alternative to the “front door of getting in, where a student just does it on their own,” and the “back door,” where people “make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in.”
International students are generally trying for the front door—but others may be holding it open for them. Thousands of international students, particularly from China, have been gaming the college application process with intensive coaching that sometimes tips over into fraud. Tutoring is common in American families as well, but the wealth and determination of many Chinese families can take this approach to a new level.
One Chinese student’s parents paid 600,000 RMB, or $90,000, for a personal agent to help him through the university application process, Foreign Policy discovered. The package guaranteed between three and five offers from universities in the Top 60. Now in his first year at a top West Coast university, the student, who is unaware of the scale of his parents’ financial contribution, said that the agent helped him polish the grammar and structure of his personal essay, and “made a few suggestions regarding what topics or things that I [could] include.” The agent also suggested extracurricular activities that would boost the student’s application, as well as going through practice SAT and ACT papers. He said that almost all of his Chinese friends at university “contacted an agent somewhere in the process of application.”
Much of this process focuses on the dreaded personal essay, a format almost completely unfamiliar in Chinese schools but which can make or break an application in the United States. Feedback and advice is perfectly legitimate for such essays—but some tutors write the whole thing for the student, or even craft fictions to aid them. Another sticking point can be extracurriculars, vital for American universities but unimportant in Chinese schools, which build toward a single exam. Sometimes tuition companies push students toward the kind of things U.S. colleges look for—or sometimes they just help invent them.
Accessing an elite American education is big business in China. The test preparation industry alone was worth $3.9 billion in 2016. There are now 340,000 Chinese nationals seeking degrees in the United States, about one-third of all foreign students. Of course, many of these students will have gotten into their schools through pure hard work, and preapplication tutoring doesn’t necessarily undermine the students’ own achievements. But there are now hundreds of companies in China that promise to help students navigate the admissions system and put together an application that guarantees success.
One company that offers help with applications is Bonday, which is headquartered in Shanghai. Although Bonday doesn’t promise a fail-safe success rate, prices for its services start at 200,000 RMB ($29,800) for packages that include soft-skills training, advice on summer schools, and help with editing personal essays. Bonday has placed students at universities such as Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. Another company, Guangzhou-based Jiazhou Education, offers a more affordable option: a U.S. college application prepared by them costs 48,000 RMB ($7,150), and they claim to have a 99 percent success rate in receiving offers from top American universities.
Like most companies interviewed for this article, Jiazhou insisted that its tutors are not ghostwriters. Other companies are less scrupulous. Yingtai Education, based in Xi’an, charges up to 100,000 RMB ($14,900) for a package of services that includes selecting appropriate schools, preparing a study plan, suggesting extracurricular activities, and “guidance about [personal statements].” Yingtai tells students what to emphasize in their personal statements and, a spokesperson said, “sometimes for the very lazy student we [have] to help [them] to compose.” Yingtai doesn’t charge an additional fee for cases where ghostwriting is deemed necessary, because for such students, “sometimes teaching and giving guidance is more time-consuming.”
“It’s a real shame,” said Nini Suet, founder and CEO of Shang Learning, an education consultancy. She said that “unethical behavior is still pretty rampant” in the education industry, and that many parents expect ghostwriting as standard. Shang Learning is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, which requires adherence to strict ethical standards, but she admits that some parents “flip out” when her company refuses to produce fraudulent essays for their children.
One of the most significant elements of a university application in the United States is the SAT. In Asia, the exam has been beleaguered by leaks and accusations of inadequate security measures. Over 10,000 Chinese students take the test every year, usually travelling to Hong Kong to do so, as there are no test centers on the mainland. But because test papers used in the United States are often reused in Asia in the same cycle, the SAT’s credibility has been repeatedly called into question. In 2013, the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SAT, canceled the scheduled exam across South Korea after South Korean law enforcement officials discovered that test-prep schools had obtained a copy of test questions in advance. In 2014, the College Board withheld the scores of every test-taker in China and South Korea after another leak, leaving 55,000 students in limbo.
The College Board insists that test-prep schools are at fault for distributing leaked papers, though the College Board created the opportunity by recycling the tests. But other cases of unfair advantages for Chinese students are more clear-cut.
In 2016, a Shenzhen-based company called Transcend Education was found to have created fake high-school transcripts on behalf of clients, doctored a teacher’s reference without his knowledge, and essentially ghostwritten college application essays. Emma Pu, director of Cambridge Youth Summer Camps, an English-teaching company based in Kunming, also believes that fraudulent activity is commonplace. Rather than producing totally fake documents, though, she said it’s more common for companies to “make your background look good, so they list some fake event or activities you have done.” In other cases, she said, companies will use sample essays found online, although most wealthy clients will use an agency that offers tailor-made fakes.
The tides in the education industry may be changing, though. In light of the bribery scandal in the United States, universities are under renewed pressure to better scrutinize their processes. Suet said that many schools have already started looking more deeply at applications, checking specifically for authenticity, and parents in first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have reacted accordingly, reducing the demand for fraud. Some universities already employ third-party companies to meet Chinese students in person to check if their real-life persona matches what is written in their applications. For the minority of students who cheat the system, the game may finally be up.
Amy Hawkins is a journalist for the Economist. Twitter: @XLHawkins
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