Chinese Students Are Flooding U.S. Christian High Schools

Data Shows Their Atheist Parents Don’t Seem to Mind

It is no secret that Chinese students are pouring into the United States; over 300,000 of them attended U.S. colleges and universities in 2015 alone, and Chinese are filling up spots in U.S. secondary schools in search of a better education and an easier route into U.S. universities. Less widely known is that at the secondary level, most Chinese attend Christian schools—even though they come from the world’s largest atheist state.

Because of restrictions on foreign student enrollment in U.S. public high schools, Chinese secondary students headed Stateside overwhelmingly attend private institutions. And Chinese parents don’t seem to care if that institution has a Christian underpinning. According to data obtained by Foreign Policy from the Department of Homeland Security via the Freedom of Information Act, 58 percent of the F-1 visas issued for Chinese high school students in 2014 and the first three months of 2015 were for Catholic or Christian schools.

Just under 28 percent of Chinese students obtained these visas to attend Catholic schools, while 30 percent were for schools with nondenominational or Protestant Christian affiliations, including schools affiliated with Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, Church of Christ, and Quaker traditions. (F-1 visas are the most common visas sought by foreign students at U.S. secondary schools.) Hover over the graphic below to see percentages by type of high school:

Chinese Students in U.S. High Schools:
Where They Go (By F-1 Visa Issuances)

Credit: graphic by C.K. Hickey

The number of Chinese students at U.S. high schools has ballooned in recent years. In 2005, fewer than 1,000 Chinese students were enrolled at U.S. secondary schools; by 2013, that number had surpassed 23,000, according to the non-profit Institute for International Education (IIE). (Visas in the above chart total 52,347, but that number is for a 15-month period, and not all recipients of an F-1 ultimately attend the school for which the visa is issued.)

The upsurge is not terribly surprising—China’s swift economic development has created a burgeoning middle class determined to provide its children with the world’s best education, a trend that has brought increasing numbers of Chinese college students to U.S. shores. Some Chinese view high school abroad as a desirable alternative to secondary schools at home, which focus largely on test preparation in advance of the extremely competitive gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination. But U.S. public schools impose tight restrictions on foreign student enrollment, limiting it in most cases to a one-year exchange; that means most Chinese parents looking to enroll their children in a U.S. high school must look to private institutions.



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Even so, the United States is a hot ticket; Chinese middle class families looking to send a child abroad aren’t aiming their sights just anywhere. Dr. Rajika Bhandari, Director of the Center for Academic Mobility Research at IIE, told Foreign Policy that Chinese are “overwhelmingly the largest number of students now seeking a diploma from the United States.” That’s due to several factors, said Bhandari, including the quick growth of the Chinese middle class, and their willingness to save for their children’s education. They see attendance at U.S. high schools as a way to become more competitive candidates for U.S. college admission. “Chinese families place a very high value on U.S. education and a U.S. credential,” she added. That holds with the results of a 2015 Foreign Policy survey of Chinese college students in the United States, which indicated that for 78 percent of respondents, quality of education was the leading influence on their decision to study Stateside.

Alyce Schales, registrar at Mountain View Academy (MVA), a private Seventh Day Adventist School located in Mountain View, California, began noticing the growth in the number of Chinese students about 10 years ago. In the 1990s, the schools had about 25 international students, mostly from Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Now, from a total high school student body of 160, 47 are international students, of whom 27 are Chinese.

It’s the quality of education that attracts Chinese students to MVA, said Schales, who helps screen the Chinese students before they attend. “One of my interview questions is ‘why do you want to study in the United States?’” she said. “They always say that the reason … is that it’s more open to student input and participation, whereas in China they’re not allowed to participate as much. They’re looking for a more open education system.”

Chinese students enrolled at religious institutions often have little to no knowledge of Christianity; Christians comprise only about five percent of China’s population, though estimates vary, and the state-mandated school curriculum there emphasizes atheism, Marxism, and a scientific worldview. “They come with no religious background,” said Schales. “We do require religion classes. We’re very upfront about it ahead of time.” All MVA students must attend religion classes and a short chapel service each day. “We’ve had students who come and personally they’re atheists, and they’ll tell the religion teacher that. But that’s ok. We respect their beliefs too. But they’re going to learn our curriculum and then go off and do whatever they want with it.” There have been “maybe five” Chinese students at the school who have chosen to be baptized, Schales told Foreign Policy, though, she added, “That’s not our goal.”

John May, the director of international student programs at St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy, an all-boys school in Toledo, Ohio, told Foreign Policy that the growth in the number of Chinese students at St. John’s began about three years ago. Two Chinese students at a Catholic school where May previously worked also chose to undergo initiation rites and receive the sacraments. But like Schales, May has observed that religion is something of a mystery to most Chinese students. “It’s challenging to come to these classes with zero knowledge,” said May. “They have no framework. It’s not like a Lutheran sitting in on a Catholic class. It’s a blank slate for these guys. It’s a bit of a head scratcher.” (May added that St. John’s does not evangelize.)



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As to how so many Chinese students end up at Christian schools despite their lack of religious affiliation, it’s often “word of mouth,” said Schales, the MVA registrar. “We have a few agents who send students to us. We don’t pay agents and we don’t work through any one particular agent,” Schales said. St. John’s, on the other hand, partners with Ivy International Group, a recruitment firm for Chinese high school students, who typically pay full tuition. Christine A. Farrugia, Senior Research Officer at IIE’s Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact, told Foreign Policy that many religious schools seek out international students to increase their diversity or bolster enrollment, which has fallen across the nation in the past decade. “Many religious schools are also now launching international programs as a way to offset declining enrollment among U.S. students in religious schools.”

Other schools use their online footprint to appeal to Chinese students who may be early in the school search process, searching for U.S. schools from home computers. Many of these schools include an international admissions tab on their website, and it’s not uncommon to employ an international admissions advisor who is Chinese, such as at Orange County Christian School in Anaheim, California, Southlands Christian Schools in Rowland Heights, and Maranatha High School in Pasadena. On its website, MVA features photos of Chinese students on the international admissions tab. While many religiously-affiliated schools display their institutional emphasis on faith prominently on their website homepage, the international admissions section often focuses on the school’s non-faith-related accolades—excellent SAT scores, proximity to metro areas, small class sizes, affordable tuition, and English language immersion. “Centered in Christ” are the first three words on the homepage of Lancaster Mennonite School; on its international page, faith or religious affiliation is not mentioned.

To be sure, the percentage of Chinese high school students attending religious U.S. institutions is not unique. IIE findings show virtually the same split of religious versus nonsectarian private school attendance among all international secondary students. And a smaller proportion of Chinese private high schools students attend religious schools than do their U.S. counterparts: about 37 percent of visas issued to Chinese students in 2014 and early 2015 were for nonsectarian private schools, while only 11.7 percent of U.S. secondary students at private schools were enrolled at nonsectarian private schools in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. But it’s nonetheless remarkable that in an officially atheist country, where children are taught to abjure Western religion, so many parents seem willing to send their children to schools founded in religious principles ranging from Christianity to Judaism to Scientology.

For many small private schools with a religious mission, the rising interest from Chinese students has been a blessing for everyone involved. “St. John’s absolutely believes there has to be a synergistic benefit, it has to be good for the Chinese students, and it has to be good for our students,” said May. “It increases the global competence of all these young men.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and David Wertime contributed reporting and analysis. Graphic by C.K. Hickey.