Chinese students are going overseas to study at younger and younger ages, and their numbers have skyrocketed in recent years as parents seek a foothold for their children in an increasingly competitive environment.
While students from mainland China are now an integral part of many colleges and universities overseas, the number of Chinese students at U.S. private high schools rose more than 100-fold in 2010-11.
Just 65 Chinese high schoolers were enrolled in U.S. private schools in 2005-6, but that number had climbed to 6,725 at the end of 2011, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
China has also displaced South Korea as the top source of international students at U.S. boarding schools, with the smallest schools having the biggest increases in Chinese enrollment, according to a schools association spokesman.
Parents say children sent overseas to study become accustomed to new environments at an early age and gain an edge in English-language skills, compared with their peers back home.
Easier when young
A mother surnamed Xing from the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning said she had sent her child to study at a U.S. high school because older students have a harder time getting used to overseas study.
"Not leaving the country until you get to university is very different from going overseas for high school," Xing said in a recent interview.
"Senior high-school students have a much easier time adjusting socially there, and their English is generally better as a result."
The majority of Chinese high schoolers who arrive in the U.S. go to private, fee-paying boarding schools, rather than publicly funded institutions, many of which charge higher tuition than universities.
However, Chinese teachers in U.S. public high schools are also setting up exchange programs using their contacts back home, resulting in more and more fee-paying Chinese students in schools that would otherwise struggle financially.
"There is an agency which finds suitable American families, and the children live with them when they get here," said a teacher at a high school in the Washington, D.C. area surnamed Liu, who has been involved with such programs.
"Food and board are all included, and it's like taking care of your own kid," she said. "Those that pass the assessment can earn around U.S. $1,000 a month."
Liu said a number of U.S. private boarding schools have specifically targeted potential students in China, and are also finding ways to billet Chinese students with Chinese families in the area.
However, she said there have been drawbacks to the practice, not least the fact that large numbers of Chinese students living and working together contribute to a closed-group mentality and diminished opportunities to learn English fluently.
Socially, such groups are often segregated by differences in their fee-paying status and by the fact that Chinese students are often at the top of their class academically, recent media reports indicate.
According to one father from the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou surnamed Hu, his daughter's U.S. senior high school education cost around
U.S. $200,000 for four years, in tuition only.
"The tuition doesn't include their food, accommodation, or transportation costs," said Hu, whose daughter began her studies in 2009. "That adds up to around U.S. $15,000 a year."
"We sent her to the U.S. because they don't really learn anything in Chinese high schools," he said. "Secondly, there's the question of safety. It's safer in foreign countries than it is over here."
Hu said his daughter had benefited greatly from the experience.
"Of course we were worried about her, but her uncle lives in the U.S., and she was staying with them," he said.
"We have worked for many years to pour it all into this one kid, but it's fine," he said. "There's no pressure on her."
Washington-based Liu said that most Chinese high schoolers enjoy their years overseas, and that those who come to the U.S. are more likely to go on to U.S. colleges and universities.
According to the U.S.-based Institute of International Education, China led international enrollment across U.S. higher education in the
2009-2010 academic year.
The U.S.-based institute's most recent figures show an increased of 23 percent in the number of mainland Chinese students to more than 723,000, compared with the previous academic year.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.