The boom in Chinese applicants to US universities has boosted China’s educational consulting industry, but the industry still faces an image problem.
China sends more university students to the United States than any other country, and for the last four years, the number of students from mainland China has grown by more than 20 percent annually. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), an independent nonprofit, almost 200,000 Chinese students studied in United States in the 2011-12 school year, and Chinese students generated almost $4 billion for the US higher education sector in 2010. As more Chinese students have chosen to study in the United States, the educational consulting industry in China has grown in tandem. While the industry has been lucrative, it faces an image problem that experts say will force educational consulting in China to change.
Educational consultants charge a fee to help students apply to universities. This can involve helping applicants find undergraduate and graduate programs that are a good fit, guiding them through the university application process, and helping them strengthen their writing and test-taking skills.
In addition to standard application materials, such as general application forms, standardized tests, and personal essays, Chinese students must also pass language tests and prepare visa applications to attend US universities. These additional hurdles have made Chinese students a niche but fast growing client base for educational consultants in China. Though there are no official statistics on how many educational consultants are in China, a 2011 National Association for College Admission and Counseling (NACAC) survey found that 60 percent of Chinese respondents said they used education consultants when they applied to US colleges.
DEMAND FOR EDUCATIONAL CONSULTANTS
As more students look abroad for a college education, the demand for educational consulting in China has increased. For many Chinese students, a degree from an American university holds more appeal than a Chinese degree. A 2010 IIE report showed that Chinese students highly value the reputation and quality of US degrees, and that the United States is also the most popular destination for Chinese students studying abroad.
Some students are attracted to the US education system’s liberal arts culture, which offers students a variety of opportunities and degrees in different subjects. In China, students who want to attend a university must take the gaokao, the college entrance exam administered once a year to millions of students throughout China. The test determines not only if a student can attend university, but where and what they can study.
“In the United States, I could be an engineer or lawyer or doctor, but just a few points lower on China’s national entrance exam means I’m going to be a laborer,” says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), a professional association that represents qualified educational consultants. “The ability to opt out of the gaokao just makes so much sense.”
According to China’s national entrance exam website, the number of students taking the gaokao has been declining since 2008. Meanwhile, according to the Educational Testing Service, in 2012 more Chinese students than ever took the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), a test required for non-native English speakers applying to US universities. In addition, according to Professionals in International Education News, the number of Chinese students taking the Scholastic Assessment Test—a standardized test for US college admissions—is expected to exceed 40,000 in 2012, up from 20,000 just two years ago.
Educational consulting is a lucrative market in China. According to Zinch China, a social network that connects students to US universities, 53 percent of respondents who said they were interested in US universities can afford to spend at least $40,000 annually on tuition. (For comparison, Peking University—one of China’s top universities—usually charges around $850 for tuition annually.) Chinese students are also willing to spend money to get admitted to a US school. Yani Zhai, an education consultant in China, says educational consultants can charge a student ¥80,000 ($12,800) to ¥200,000 ($32,000) a year for application consulting.
While it is a lucrative time for educational consulting in China, a few well-documented cases have raised questions about who can be trusted in the field. In October 2012, the Boston Globe reported that a family in Hong Kong gave more than $2 million to an educational consulting firm to provide tutoring and funnel donations to an elite university, to boost their son’s chance of admittance. When he was not admitted to the university, the family sued the firm.
In other instances, consultants have written student essays with little or no input from the student, and other consultants receive recruiting fees to place students with certain universities, a practice that is banned in the United States. Zhai cautions against calling those individuals consultants, however, and says they are usually known as zhongjie, which translates to intermediaries or agents. Zhai and Sklarow both acknowledge that it is easy for schools and families to conflate consultants with those agents because both groups are hired to help with admissions. They explain that agents, unlike consultants, may not have strong educational credentials, help too much with applications, and often do not follow ethical guidelines. In a separate report, Zinch China interviewed students who claimed that up to three-quarters of Chinese students have other people—in many cases agents—write their application essays.
RESHAPING THE INDUSTRY
Sklarow says the IECA is aiming to address the image problem. To ensure credibility the IECA has a multistage vetting process. “We can confirm if someone has been approved for membership,” Sklarow says, “That means we checked their education, references, business model, marketing, campus visits, training, [and] quality of advice.” He says that the organization’s ethical standards are a premium that Chinese consultants can add to their resume if they are IECA-approved. The IECA currently has eight professional members in China and more than 30 associate members. Most consultants need to spend up to three years as an associate member—a provisional status. “Once we have confidence in their ethics and capabilities, they may become a professional member,” he says.
Sklarow expects the number of members in China to grow to 25 professional and 100 associate members by the end of 2013. The IECA is vetting 15 to 20 membership applications from China. The IECA rejects about one-third of US domestic applicants, about half of international applicants, and three-quarters of Chinese applicants.
Sklarow also says the educational consulting market in China is ripe for transformation and that new business models are being devised. For example, US-based institutions, such as the Princeton Review Inc., are looking at combining test preparation with language immersion courses for Chinese students. But a company with significant brand recognition in China has not yet emerged. “US affiliation often brings a degree of legitimacy in China,” Sklarow says. “US-based services are well positioned to catch up in a market traditionally dominated by domestic service providers.”
Zhai says she is skeptical that credentials alone will solve the image problem for consultants, because she says customer trust is built more through word of mouth. She says Chinese students and families need to change their values to force educational consultants to be more accountable. She says parents are increasingly savvy about what they want for their children, and are beginning to understand that the goal is not to just get into a college, but to get into the right college. “Our approach is to be more of a mentor,” she says. “We want the admissions process to be educational, fruitful, and worthwhile, and to best prepare them for an American liberal arts education.”
[author] Joseph Luk ([email protected]) is assistant editor of the China Business Review. [/author]