BEIJING » At the University of Chicago this summer, Yan Jielin, 17, pored over documents from the American Revolution and mastered themes in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Her final paper discussed an obscure petition from the House of Lords to the king of England in June 1776.
About to enter her senior year at a Beijing high school, Yan, a shy, serious student, is confident her summer experience in the United States will give her an extra edge in the fierce competition among Chinese students to get into a top U.S. college.
"Reading the documents, I really felt that I was figuring out what happened at that time by myself," she said. "That is so different from my previous ways of learning history."
By some estimates, more than 100,000 Chinese students, some as young as 10, flocked to the United States this summer to delve into American life and culture. Some studied diligently in programs intended to improve their SAT scores. Others kicked back and enjoyed more leisurely pursuits, on group tours that visited Las Vegas, New York and Disneyland. Some attended outdoor camps.
The surge in students traveling to the United States for the summer is the latest iteration in China’s booming multibillion-dollar overseas education business. Until recently, the vast number of Chinese education agencies that broker students’ entry to U.S. colleges and private high schools concentrated on preparing them at home in China. They coached well-off, fee-paying, and, in some cases, brilliant Chinese students in the intricacies of the U.S. admissions process.
Now, many Chinese companies are catering to the expanding ambitions of Chinese parents, and their offspring, by offering summer experiences costing $5,000 to $15,000 for several weeks in the United States, often a first step to a U.S. college education, or a high school degree, which have become badges of prestige here.
But concerns about the programs’ cost, far beyond the means of most Chinese families, and their effectiveness have been the focus of a sharp national discussion since the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco last month. About 70 Chinese students headed for U.S. summer camps were aboard, and three were killed. The news elicited sympathy, of course, but also admiration for families who had saved enough to send their children abroad.
It also stirred questions about why young Chinese must go overseas to study and — in a nation incensed by corruption and a widening wealth gap — about whose children can enjoy such expensive opportunities.
"It’s a privilege reserved for the wealthy, or at least for families above middle class," said Zhang Yang, who has a master’s degree in education from Harvard and is the director of the overseas education department of the EIC Group, an education agency in Beijing. "I don’t think these study-abroad tours are things ordinary families can afford."
A typical middle-class family could afford programs costing about $2,500, about half that of the least expensive summer sessions in the United States, he said.
When photographs of Chinese students looking forlorn as they ate hamburgers outside a U.S. retail outlet while their teachers shopped inside appeared in mid-July on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, angry citizens asked why the teenagers were left to lounge around.
"People feel resentful because most families do not have the financial means to offer their children the opportunity to go on such tours, and they feel jealous of the families who do," said Li Jiayu, who runs the education company USAdaxue in Beijing.
Families who pay for the costliest summer programs often want to ensure that their children attend one of the 50 top-ranked U.S. colleges, Chinese educators said, so competition for a place in one of these programs is high.
A closely supervised $14,000 program run by Elite Scholars of China accepted 26 out of 100 applicants, who attended a two-week academic course at Wellesley College in Massachusetts followed by a week of visits to a dozen top colleges and their admissions officers. Participants were selected on the basis of interviews, said Tomer Rothschild, a co-founder of the agency.
Elite Scholars markets its summer programs as an academic version of minor-league baseball scouting. Admissions officers know the Chinese students chosen for the program are among the best and the brightest, he said.
"We are brokers of trust," he said.
Li Jiang, a senior at Beijing No. 4 High School, who took part in Elite’s winter program at Wellesley this year, was accepted at Harvard and Princeton. She chose Harvard.
"The students are managed minute to minute," Rothschild said of Elite’s programs. The day starts at 8 a.m. with tutoring for the SATs, turns to writing skills in the afternoon and closes with more SAT preparation in the evening, he said.
In writing classes, Rothschild said, students are encouraged to be reflective.
"The Chinese want to say how they failed, then worked hard, persevered and succeeded," he said. "We want to wean them off that."
A student who attended the Elite writing tutorials, Song Kexin, 17, said she was coached on how to impress admissions officers.
"In China, we often write about things that happened to other people," she said. "We are too shy to talk about ourselves. In one of our practice essays, I wrote about my grandma. My counselor told me that by writing about her I should ultimately show admissions officers something about myself."
Not all summer programs are so determinedly academic. Unhappy with the rote learning and strict discipline of China’s school system, a Beijing business executive, David Cao, sent his 10-year-old son, Yuxuan, to a $6,000 summer camp run by the YMCA in Whittier, Calif.
"My son doesn’t like the didactic nature of Chinese education," Cao said. "From what I understand, in America they respect children’s individual characters."
Yuxuan played sports, studied some English, mixed with American students and visited the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, Cao said.
After the crash of the Asiana flight in San Francisco, some parents learned for the first time that a nondenominational Christian church in Los Angeles sponsored the program, a fact that did not trouble Cao.
"I believe they are not going to proselytize children at the camp," he said.
Some summer programs made little effort to offer more than sightseeing and a stay with an American host family.
"I went to Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon and Disneyland," said Li Zhuo, 16, who is entering her junior year at Chaoyang High School in Shanghai. "In California, American teachers taught us how to sing English songs, and we stayed at local residents’ homes."
The two-week trip cost $5,000.
Growth in the high-end summer camp business is spurred, in part, by some Chinese high schools tailoring their curriculum for students who know early on that they want to attend college in the United States rather than China.
Between their junior and senior years, many of these students travel to the United States hoping to improve their English language skills, that way gaining an edge in their college applications, school counselors said.
At Beijing No. 4 High School, summer school in the United States is now almost expected for students who want to go to college there, said Shi Guoping, deputy dean of academic affairs.
"Families should pay for good programs as long as they can afford them," Shi said. "Not attending them because of their cost is no different from giving up eating for fear of choking."