More international students are attending school in the U.S.: Chinese students alone make up 10 percent of the freshmen class at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The university charges its international undergraduates more than twice what its in-state students pay for tuition.
But colleges aren’t the only institutions making global gains. Private American high schools—especially religious institutions struggling with low enrollment—are welcoming more international students, too.
Allen Li is one of those students. He unwinds after school, sporting some basketball shorts and a New England Patriots T-shirt.
“I love Patriots. My school guys are Bears fans, absolutely,” he said.
Li’s blended in with his American classmates and their love for sports, but the Western idea of team loyalty is new to him.
“Some people in China only support people, like Kobe Bryant. But not Lakers. But here they all like a team, no matter if it’s good or bad,” Li said.
Which might explain why he prefers the reigning Superbowl champs over the Chicago Bears.
Li is a senior at St. Laurence High School in Burbank, Illinois. He’s living with about 20 other Chinese high school students, dorm style, at the Write Inn in Oak Park. Their parents have sent them here to earn an American high school diploma. And from there, hopefully acceptance to an American college. Doing so also allows these students to bypass the high stress of China’s gaokao, the national college entrance exam. And unlike the ACT or SAT, if a student does poorly on the gaokao, they have to wait another year before they can take the test again.
“The Chinese education is more complicated. We have to study 12 courses a year and from 7am to 5pm. It’s very tough,” Li said.
Li and the other students are looked after by the Greater Chicago International Academy, or GCIA. The program matches students with five religious high schools in the area.
“Four, five years ago, there’s demand for high school. However, there aren’t many systems or programs developing here to support the high school students,” said Jian Sun who heads the program.
This isn’t a new phenomenon — students have been coming to the states for high school for years, but the circumstances haven’t always been ideal. Sun noted that relationships with host families can turn sour, or when several students live together in an apartment or home with little supervision, that can be troublesome, too. That was one of the major drivers for Sun to create a more comprehensive program.
Derrick Zhang is a senior too. He decided to switch over to GCIA this year after living with a host family in North Carolina.
“We didn’t really talk a lot. So I think it was better for me to go to a bigger city so I can communicate with more people and experience more American life,” Zhang said.
Sun’s program started in Milwaukee in 2012, where now 171 students are enrolled in local schools. The Chicago program launched last year with 20 students.
“We not only provide room and board. We provide ELL, English language learning program at school. And also we place tutors at schools,” Sun said.
Of course, the program comes with a hefty price tag: $40,000 a year. And according to Sun, there are lots of families willing to pay to get their kids into GCIA; and there’s no scholarship.
Christine Li’s family enrolled her in the program last year, when she was a freshman. By the time she graduates high school, they will have paid $160,000.
“Most of families, honestly, they have to consider this money disposable. Because high school is not their destination, alright. College is at least next level,” Sun said.
More than half of GCIA students in Chicago attend Guerin College Prep in River Grove. Like other Catholic schools across the country, it’s experienced a decline in enrollment.
“We flattened out about two years ago. So now we’re slowly but surely seeing the incremental increases, which we’re encouraged by,” said Steve Baldwin, president of Guerin.
Of the school’s 410 students, he says, international kids make up about 7 percent — but Baldwin hopes to expand that to 10 percent. On top of the $10,000 tuition, the school takes in additional money from its international students for providing things like tutors and additional English classes.
Baldwin said enrollment numbers and dollars aside, the program also gives the school some global cred.
“Our kids see what these different cultures, different traditions. Not everybody acts the same, not everybody looks the same, not everybody comes from the same backgrounds. And that is what they are going to experience in college,” he explained.
A little over 73,000 international students came to the U.S. for high school in 2013, according to a report from the Institute of International Education. The largest share of those students came from China.
Getting a diploma in the U.S. is seen as a leg up on the competition, among Chinese students vying for a spot at a top American university. And so far, it’s worked out for those who make the sizable investment.
It may have been his parents’ decision to send their only child attend high school in the U.S., but now, Allen Li said it’s his dream to attend New York University.
“Everybody knows the finance there is pretty good, and my dream is to study finance as a major. So I will try my best to apply to it and study hard. That’s the only thing I can do,” Li said.
Whether his future career will be based in the U.S. or China, he says he’ll pick the country that makes him the best offer.
Susie An is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @soosieon.