China's Ivy League dreams fuel lucrative admissions industry

The culture of the Chinese education system looks for shortcuts, and a money solves everything approach. -Courtesy photo
The culture of the Chinese education system looks for shortcuts, and a money solves everything approach. -Courtesy photo

BEIJING - From hiring ghostwriters and forging sports credentials to generous 'gift-giving', admissions middlemen in China are advising wealthy parents to take an array of 'shortcuts' to secure places at foreign universities.

The service comes with a hefty price tag, often running into tens of thousands of dollars, but nonetheless the industry is booming.

The lengths to which some are willing to go to were highlighted in the admissions scandal that shook US universities this year, where prosecutors found one Chinese family had given $6.5 million to an admissions agent to get their daughter to Stanford, while another had coughed up $1.2 million for entry to Yale.

The case saw dozens of people -- including Hollywood stars and CEOs -- plead guilty to using bribery to ensure places at prestigious schools, but education experts in China say it's not unusual to advise such practice to families keen on foreign universities.

"In the admissions world, it's called gift-giving instead of bribing. About $10,000 is on the lower end of the spectrum. An average gift will be about $250,000," one former college counselor revealed, on condition of anonymity.

Six current and former employees of admissions agencies told AFP they suggested parents "find shortcuts" to circumvent the traditional process.

"I have done things I am not proud of including coaching parents on how to embellish transcripts or fake sports credentials. I have received mangled essays, which are then heavily edited by professionals," one advisor confessed.

Fu Rao's family spent 250,000 yuan ($36,300) on her admissions consultant. The entire package included advice on how to correspond with professors, which courses to take to make sure her high school transcript was filled with A grades, and how to chat about American football.

It has been an 18-month process so far during which she has also taken the SAT exam, a standardized test to enter US colleges four times -- so she was certain she would get the score she needed.

A professional editor has fine-tuned her admissions essays and resume, and, on the advice of her consultant, she's volunteered at an orphanage in Cambodia.

"Many students volunteer at schools for rural children in China, so I had to do something different to make my application stand out from the crowd," explained 16-year-old Fu.

Nearly a dozen parents interviewed by AFP said they were willing to shell out top dollar to admissions services, because they felt they were taking a huge risk by sending their children abroad, with the US, Britain, and Australia most popular for higher education.

Chinese students wanting to study abroad take a risk by skipping the gaokao, the country's notoriously difficult college entrance test, which is the only route to Chinese universities. This gives them time to prepare for a completely different set of standardized tests.

"But, if the student fails to secure a seat abroad, it's very difficult to resume their studies within the Chinese system. So its a the point of no return," conceded Huang Yinfei, Fu's mother.

Abdiel Leroy, author of "Duelling the Dragon", said he "witnessed shocking levels of corruption" while working for a company that helped Chinese students enter prestigious British boarding schools.

"The culture of the Chinese education system looks for shortcuts, and a money solves everything approach," he added.

The country's foreign college admission services industry is expected to grow to $35 billion by 2021 from $28 billion in 2017, according to a February report by the state-backed Chinese Students and Scholars Association. -AFP