Growing numbers of Hong Kong high school students are applying to universities in the United States in the hope of a better education – and the trend is fuelling the expansion of the “college prep” tutor industry in the city, consultants have said.
Some students and parents report that the extra assistance is helpful for their applications, while education experts say it is unnecessary and contributes to inequality within education and beyond.
But tutors and coaches insist they are just responding to the demand and are helping relieve the anxiety of the university application process.
At the Edge Learning Centre in Causeway Bay, university admissions courses cost HK$18,000 while hourly consulting rates range from HK$4,000 to HK$8,500. The centre charges between HK$120,000 and HK$250,000 for a full university admissions package, depending on the counsellors.
Duc Luu, the company’s chief executive, said despite the surge in business in recent years, he had observed the number of Hong Kong students being accepted to US universities declining.
“Broadly, university application processes are getting tougher and tougher every year, especially for the top 50 universities in the US,” he said. “That’s happening worldwide.”
Luu said the application process was a cause of stress for some students, but blamed this on the intensity of the job market.
“I think it has become more stressful,” he said. “But I think the stress is as much related to the job market … than anything else. We generally get 100 per cent of our students into one of their top three choices.”
Carole Bird, director of Apply Ivy, agreed that the number of Hongkongers applying to American colleges had increased, although her company could not provide statistics.
“Brand recognition, especially in Asia, is very important to a lot of people, so I don’t think that’s going away,” she said.
Bird also said the cost of consultant coaching packages had increased.
“It should be seen as a long-term investment, not a short-term expense,” she said. “In terms of the financial commitment, it’s definitely something families need to plan for.”
But Hugo Horta, assistant professor at the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong, said the “college prep” system perpetuated the cycle of inequality by making it increasingly difficult for students from low-income families to apply.
He had “serious doubts” about how useful the training provided by such consultancy services was, and said they were exploiting a perceived need that did not necessarily exist.
“This is the market working on families that do not have much information … but know that it’s important to send their kids there,” he said. “This can lead to quite perverse practices in education.”
Tiffany Cheng, 17, a pupil at Canadian International School who paid HK$10,000 for ACT (American College Testing) preparation but opted not to shell out for college counselling, said she was applying to study psychology in the US for “the atmosphere”.
“If I go to the US, I’ll meet people from a more diverse culture and will be able to learn something about where they’ve been,” she said. “Whereas maybe in Hong Kong, everyone is more competitive and only focuses on academia.”
Dr Jun Li of the Division of Policy, Administration and Social Sciences Education at HKU, said Hong Kong parents remained attracted to the prestige of US universities, but low-income families should consider local ones if the higher fees abroad would financially cripple them.
“US colleges are considered world class and give the graduates good credit for career development in the future,” he said. “But for poorer families, the local universities could be the best choice.
“The quality of education provided by the local universities is very good, if not better than those in the US. I would consider them equivalent.
“But to some high school graduates, maybe they want a more authentic English learning experience.”
Source: South China Morning Post