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China's middles class affords $2500 summer camp

"Families should pay for good programs as long as they can afford them. Not attending them because of their cost is no different from giving up eating for fear of choking."

-- Shi Guopeng, deputy dean of academic affairs, Beijing No. 4 High School

"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 an American 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 American 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.

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 an American 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 American 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.


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