Prep services get Chinese students into US schools

Some Americans may be questioning the value of a college degree, but a record number of Chinese nationals are flocking to American universities.

It takes a lot of time, effort and money for them to get there, which has some American firms seeing big opportunities to cash in.

According to the Institute of International Education's 2014 Open Doors report, Chinese nationals are the fastest-growing student population in U.S. colleges, with more than 274,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the 2013-14 academic year. According to the report, students from China now make up 31 percent of all international students in the United States.

But as most U.S. parents with college age kids know, getting that American education does not come cheap.

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Andrew Finn, co-founder and managing director of online college test prep company ArborBridge, said that Chinese parents pay upwards of $30,000 to try to get their kids into top-tier American universities.

Finn estimated that the standardized testing preparation market for Chinese nationals taking the ACT or SAT hit about $225 million in 2014. The college consulting and application preparation market reached close to $325 million, totaling about $550 million for the entire Chinese preparation market.

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In 2014, Finn's firm estimated there were more than 55,000 mainland Chinese SAT takers.

The company recently announced a partnership with Chinese admissions consulting company ChaseFuture in the hopes of bringing American-style prep courses to eager Chinese college applicants. Services include one-on-one preparation, proctored practice tests, diagnostic tests and customized programs, depending on how much a family is willing to shell out.

University of California, Davis freshmen Guan Wang, right, and Tracy Chen walk to class.
Tony Avelar | Bloomberg | Getty Images
University of California, Davis freshmen Guan Wang, right, and Tracy Chen walk to class.

Some critics argue that prep services for Chinese nationals creates more competition for American citizens in an already highly competitive market. But the influx of Chinese students can actually help American students in the long run, according to the President Steve Orlins of the National Committee on US/China Relations, a nonprofit funded by U.S. corporations, private foundations and the U.S. government.

"By and large they are not taking opportunities away," Orlins said. "They are paying full freight, and that's why a lot of schools are thrilled to have them. That gives colleges opportunities to give scholarships to American students who can't pay in full."

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The Institute of International Education, citing the U.S. Department of Commerce, said students from China enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities contributed more than $8 billion to the domestic economy in 2013.

Gordon Chang, author of "The Coming Collapse of China," told CNBC that while China's students do take college seats away from others, they are keeping institutions afloat by "paying outrageous tuition."

"American students should be welcoming their Chinese counterparts with gratitude and hoping even more of them show up, checkbooks in hand and wallets bulging," he said. "Education is in many ways America's most important export."

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Steve Orlins said the bigger issue when it comes to Chinese college students in America is that many of them are being sent back post-graduation.

"We need to find a way to keep these kids in the U.S. when they graduate, so they can use the skills here instead of taking them back to China," Orlins said.