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August 15. 2013 10:17PM

Fergus Cullen: Schooling the Manchurian applicant in New Hampshire

Saint Paul’s School and Bishop Brady High School are 2.5 miles apart, with Concord High in between them. These three schools — one elite private, one Catholic, one public – fulfill similar missions in very different ways. Tuition at Saint Paul’s runs about $50,000 a year, and it rejects 85 percent of applicants. Brady charges $10,400 and has empty seats. Concord High enjoys a solid reputation among public schools.

Education is a big sector in New Hampshire’s economy, but statewide fewer families are preparing to send their kids back to school. Demographic changes mean we’re living in an era of declining enrollments. Could school closures, consolidation, and job losses be far behind?

A trend in private education hints at one way New Hampshire public schools might make use of excess capacity, preserve jobs, and save taxpayers money even as they educate fewer local kids. It’s by getting into the business of providing an American education to international students.

“There’s a gigantic, talented, full-pay market internationally,” says Saint Paul’s headmaster Mike Hirschfeld.

“There is a huge demand for an American education among Chinese families. Huge demand. I could fill our school with international students,” concurs Bishop Brady principal Trevor Bonat, sitting next to a white board listing upgrades he’d like to make.

International students comprise about 20 percent of the student body at Saint Paul’s, Brewster Academy, Holderness School, Kimball Union Academy, and Dublin School. If any of these prep schools wanted, they could become 100 percent international. South Korea and Hong Kong have long sent large numbers of students to the States. Today demand is booming in mainland China.

These aren’t exchange students or kids doing a post graduate year to learn English. These are four-year students whose families expect that attending an American private school will give their children access to what is perceived internationally as a precious commodity: an American college education. These families are willing to invest small fortunes for that opportunity. Almost none of the international students attending private schools receive financial aid. In many cases, families are spending more than $300,000, including travel costs and fees paid to a placement agent, for their child to attend school here.

Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover limits its international population to 24, about the same number as attend the smaller Bishop Brady. The parochial schools are not boarding schools, so students live with host families. That limits the number of foreign students they can handle. Another factor schools have to consider is whether they are prepared for a large English as a Second Language population. Brady uses international student tuition to hire two ESL staff to work with that population.

Administrators at several private schools point to the non-financial benefits of having an international presence within their schools. “Last year, one of our history classes was having a discussion about China’s ‘one child’ policy. The American students had one perspective on this, and the Chinese student was able to speak up and share her own perspective,” related one.

No administrator I spoke with confessed to feeling tempted to admit more full-pay international students for financial reasons, but they all said it happens at other schools. One can pay for a new turf field or close a projected deficit quickly by admitting a handful of Chinese at $200,000 each.

International demand for an American high school education suggests an opportunity for creative thinking public schools. School boards and administrators complain about not having enough money even as they mothball empty classrooms. Many school districts depend on having tuition students from other towns.

Why couldn’t an entrepreneurial-minded district enroll tuition-paying international students? The price might need to be discounted compared to Saint Paul’s, but the market might bear a fee of $20,000 to $25,000. A district with a lot of excess capacity could provide housing and set up a school within a school to take advantage of the trend.

Most public schools would blanch at the idea of approaching education as a business, but the American high school education they provide is highly valued by millions of aspirational families overseas, even as it’s taken for granted here. If public schools don’t meet that demand, private schools will.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com



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