Let's Send Xiao Yang to Camp in America
- Part of TCBN's Education Series
Tom Melcher has had a long and varied history in and out of China. In this interview, he describes how Kemeixin
, China's only American-owned education counseling service, helps Chinese students make sense of their choices in USA-based camps and colleges.
TCBN: Now, I Understand Kemeixin helps Chinese parents and students choose and apply to undergraduate education programs in the U.S.A. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and about the number and variety of needs that you are seeing across the population of students that you serve?
Melcher: Sure, Kemeixin is basically an old-fashioned American guidance counseling service. Chinese students don’t have guidance counselors in their schools, so we fill that gap by providing honest and independent advice to Chinese students and their parents about American schools starting as early as age 8. When they are looking at summer programs in the U.S. and continuing up through middle school and high school while they look at summer programs or boarding schools, then colleges and college summer programs, and then graduate schools, the full spectrum of services. The reason we do it, is that increasingly, Chinese families are deciding they aren’t comfortable with the educational options available to them in China, while they have always had a dream to study in the United States. They now have the income to support that dream, so we are noticing a dramatic rise in families who are sending their children to the United States at an increasingly younger ages for school.
TCBN: I think we have ready many articles about the desire for families to see their kids to get into the tops schools in the U.S. Now that money and financial wealth of the population has caught up with the reality to do that, do you see them calibrate their expectations where they should aim for their kids to go?
Melcher: You know, yes and no. I think parents all over the world – and certainly the ones I know in the United States and China – all want the best for their child, and the best usually translates to a name brand school. And of course, we all think our children are fantastically talented and gifted and can do anything they set their hearts and minds to do. So, I think Chinese parents aren’t unique in their aspirations for having their child attend Harvard or Yale or a similarly famous program. That said, just as is the case of American parents, Chinese parents are getting a better understanding of how education in the United States works. I have to say five years ago when I started this, I heard a constant refrain about how I want my son or daughter to go to Harvard and it was really a disconnect between that dream and the reality of his or her son’s achievement. In recent years, I have noticed a much more realistic perspective, where they may say, “My child is of course great, but academically maybe he is not as strong, maybe she is not so interested, so I don’t think he or she is destined to go to Harvard. I understand that are a lot of great liberal arts schools in the U.S, or there are lot of great colleges in the U.S. that I don’t really know anything about, can you help me learn more about those?” It’s a nice trend actually; it’s not surprising as parents become more educated about the choices that exist, it’s obvious, to me, that they’ll become more discerning consumers, which is great! Because at the end of the day, we all want to do is we find the best possible match between what the child and the family are looking for and what is available on the market place. American schools themselves need to really understand that Chinese families and consumers are perhaps over the next five years their single largest international group. Yet I am continually stunned by the extent to which American schools really are not paying attention to that opportunity. And if they are, to the extent to which they are making really expensive mistakes about how to reach out to that community, particularly now during this economic crisis, a lot of fantastic schools in the United States simply can’t afford to ignore this potential revenue source. Because these kids have money – they don’t need financial aid.
TCBN: Is it possible, I am just sitting here, thinking, of course I understand the pressures that can be placed on students in the PRC by the family, education being so high-valued, such a ticket and gateway to a better life in many cases. But is this also a chance for parents to hedge and make sure their parents are focused in school, where they maybe haven’t gotten into the top tier schools in China and therefore maybe not pursued their educational ambitions as hard, whereas if they went to the United States they might feel responsibility to perform to their best?
Melcher: That is an interesting perspective, and it is exactly what I say to parents of kids who are in the equivalent to eighth grade or ninth grade in China, when I really strongly encourage them to send their child to the U.S. for some sort of summer program. Their reaction is, “wow, that is so young, why should I send little Johnny to the U.S. for a summer program, and boy, it’s expensive.” What I tell them is exactly what you are referring to, in that no child I have ever met loves to study a foreign language. They do it typically out of necessity. In the case of Chinese students, English is especially difficult. What I tell the parents is, “When your child is in eighth grade or ninth grade, that summer send him or her to the U.S. for three weeks and give them a taste of what it’s like – a very different culture. It could be that your son or daughter will hate it, but in our experience they love it.” And what’s most important is not whether that three week experience is on track to get that child into Harvard, what is important is that it really energizes the child about the opportunities that exist outside of China and really gets the child excited about learning English. Then what I say to the parents, is “If your child comes back and really loves the experience then say to him or her, ‘that was expensive, but I’ll do it again provided you do really well in school and particularly in English.’ ” We have already several examples of kids in that age group who were kind of sulky about having to go, and when they came back they were a different child. They were turned on, energized and excited. Now whether or not those kids go to college or graduate school in the United States is beside the point. What that experience has done is really opened their eyes to a world of opportunity and convinced them why it’s a good idea to suffer through the hardship of learning a foreign language like English.
TCBN: But one thing comes to mind, I understand that over the last five years or so, the number of higher education institutions in China has doubled, according to the five year plan.
Melcher: That’s right
TCBN: And, one would think that educational opportunities were flourishing, there was no longer the one size fits all, the gaokao, meaning the entrance exam, forcing everybody to put their hopes on a few outposts of higher learning.
Melcher: That’s true. China has made remarkable progress in the last five years in doubling the number of undergraduate institutions. However, as anyone in the education sector might guess, such an explosion in growth has carried with it huge challenges in ensuring quality. We are talking about in the last five years, the number of institutions growing from one thousand to two thousand. Doubling the size of the college system in five years raises questions: where are you going to find all those teachers? As a result, Chinese parents are also saying, compared to the past, there is double the number of seats available for kids to enter college in China, that’s the good news. The bad news is that the society and the economy, in particularly with the economic crisis recently, is having a very hard time absorbing this new tidal wave of Chinese undergraduate students. You see different statistics, but anecdotally I can tell you that it really is true, that about a year after graduating even from the top Yale and Harvard equivalents in China, a year after doing so, twenty- five- percent still aren’t gainfully employed. What’s interesting, looking at this from a social progress point of view, the good news is that the country has really dramatically increased resources for education. The remaining challenge is that they can find productive jobs for those kids. Because so many of these Chinese kids are going into college but not leaving with great job prospects, more and more Chinese parents are asking, “Wait a minute – maybe I should send my child overseas, because then when he or she comes back, he or she is going to have a much easier time finding a job,” which statistically is true. So that’s exactly what’s going on.
TCBN: Now, I understand that it’s not that you are working on behalf of the schools in the United States, sort of pushing interests and collecting fees from them. It’s really the families in China paying you for advisory fees only, is that how I understand the business model?
Melcher: That’s right. We have a business model that is quite common in the United States. You have an independent college counselor say, or an independent boarding school counselor who has no commercial relationships with the school and charges the parents a consulting fee. In the United States that process is quite common, so the parents have the peace of mind that the consultant’s advice is truly independent and untarnished by any commercial interest driven by the school who pays them commission. However, in China, largely for historical reasons, that is not how the industry has developed. Instead, the industry is dominated by these companies that are referred to as agents. The agents charge money in three different ways. They first charge the parents a consulting fee, like we do. In addition they take commissions from the schools that are really substantial commissions, and unfortunately they don’t typically disclose that to the parents. And finally if a child gets into the school, and the kid gets some type of financial aid, they demand from the parents a portion of that financial aid package, but they never disclose that tax to the school. Meanwhile, the parent and the child unfortunately believe the advice they are getting from these so-called agents is independent and in the child’s best interest. In fact I have many examples that is not the case, but instead the Chinese kids are being told, “you shouldn’t apply to that school, you will never get in,” or “no you shouldn’t apply to that school, it’s not very good, but instead you should apply to this school.” The difference between that school and this school is the former does not pay commission and the latter does. It’s really unfortunate. This isn’t to say that all Chinese agents are like this, but the great majority of them are. I don’t have a problem taking commission from schools provided it’s disclosed. The issue is around disclosure. In our case, we decided not to even go down that path and to stay purely independent. Our databases include all the summer programs, boarding schools, colleges and graduate programs in the United States. We have no economic incentive to recommend one over the other. If we do have some sort of relationship with the school, because we went there, we have friends there, or we are helping the school with something in China, we tell parents, so that they are fully informed about any potential conflict of interest. Because it’s your child, you don’t want to fool around with your child, and with Kemeixin, our rule is if there is a choice between doing the right thing for the company or the child, we do the right thing for the child, we think this philosophy over time will help us build a strong business.
TCBN: As a way to conclude our conversation today, when we talk about schools or your own counselors’ ability to convey a sense what the reality will be like on the ground for students in the U.S., conveying an understanding of America, American life for them, what is cliché these days and what are you finding most impactful, that really you can see it registering in their minds, like I’m getting a sense of what I am going to encounter when I get over there?
Melcher: Well, put it this way the number one TV show among young 17-24 year-old women in China is “Gossip Girl.” This is a show that is not available in China, it’s only available through pirated versions online. Truly it is the number one show in that demographic. If you ask any young, hip, urban Chinese woman, she could tell you exactly what’s going on in the lives of those “Gossip Girls.” Any society outside the United States sort of sees the U.S. through the prism of Hollywood, and that is a perfect example. And that is set in a school, so of course there expectations are it’s going to be like that. But there have been other movies, the most notorious is Animal House. There are many Chinese kids and families that come to me and said “is Animal House true?” And I always smile at the question. When I first came to China twenty-something years ago, there wasn’t even enough of global awareness to ask the question, they just assumed it was true. But now I am delighted by this question, because it shows that people are much more discriminating consumers, and they understand there is some real possibility in fact it may not be true. And they are coming to somebody who they are in a position to trust and asking for a real take. So these stereotypes exist, but it’s exciting to watch how quickly society is progressing and how much more discerning Chinese consumer are about education.
TCBN: Well, Tom that is all the time we have today. I want to thank you very much. Again, we’ve been speaking with Tom Melcher, he is the chairman of Kemeixin. It’s China’s only American-owned education counseling service. Tom thank you very much for having the time to spend with us today, and for reflecting on your own experiences as it has translated into your current work.
Melcher: Terrific, happy to help and best of luck.