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America, Wake Up! The Brits Are Already Beating You, and You Don’t Even Know it!

Not too long ago, over dinner, a few friends were discussing an impending visit by Princess Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The occasion would be to commemorate the launch of a new Asian campus of their alma mater, Marlborough College. Which is also where the Princess went to high school.

This new US$53 million boarding school is located on the Malaysia-Singapore border, in a young and ambitious economic development zone called Iskandar. Both Iskandar’s developers and the heads of Marlborough College hope that this new Asian outpost will attract the sons and daughters of the well-heeled from across Asia-Pacific.

Sending one’s child off to boarding school, of course, is nothing new. But for generations, the choice for most wealthy Asian, Middle Eastern and Australian parents was to send their kids to the West, i.e. the United Kingdom and the United States. But over the years, a few things have become apparent. One, the majority of places in these schools are rightly reserved for UK and US residents, respectively. Secondly, while some parents have been okay with sending their children halfway around the world to study, many more parents would rather they stay closer to home.

American and British universities are still hugely popular with Asia-Pacific students. Which makes going to high schools that both prepare them for their collegiate experiences and also have (centuries-old) relationships with the best of the bunch make foreign preparatory schools highly attractive.

So, what does this tell you? Well, as any first-year econ student will tell you, it’s a simply supply and demand issue. There’s already demand, so there’s money to be made fulfilling demand. Which is exactly what the Brits are and have been doing over the two last decades. And especially so recently.

In addition to Marlborough, Epsom College (whose patron just happens to be HM The Queen of England) will be opening a school in Malaysia this year. The very highly-reputed London independent girls’ school, North London Collegiate School (NCLS) opened a campus in Jeju, South Korea last Fall. Other top independent British schools that have opened sister campuses (both on their own and through franchise partners) in Asia include Harrow, Dulwich College, Repton, Shrewsbury, and Wellington. Harrow has, in fact, three schools in the region–in Bangkok, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Dulwich has six–in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Zuhai, Seoul and Singapore (not open yet). Haileybury from Hertfordshire has even opened in as far flung a locale as Almaty, Kazakhstan.

While the most famous British independent schools have been making headway into this region, what has been interesting to me–especially as I am a product of the American prep school system–is that their American peers are nowhere to be seen. So what gives?

While a generation ago, the golden ring of college admissions for smart Asians was Oxbridge, today, Asian students overwhelmingly prefer to attend university in America. This is actually the case globally. In 2011 for example, US colleges snapped up more than twice as many international students as their Brtish peers. Even more noteworthy, as reported by Karissa Singh in the Varsity (a Cambridge University newspaper) last year, is “that international students are abandoning top British universities like Cambridge, for ‘lesser names’ across the pond.” Ms Singh especially singled out students from China, Japan and Southeast Asia, for whom American colleges has become “the default choice”.

So, if more international students, especially Asians, prefer going to American varsities, and American prep schools are the best possible feeders to the top schools, logic would dictate that schools like Andover, Exeter, Choate Rosemary, St Paul’s, etc, would have Asia strategies brewing. Certainly parents would pay top dollar to send Junior to a Lawrenceville Beijing or a St Paul’s Seoul. But from what I can tell, the very idea of setting up in Asia has escaped the Boards behind these prestigious schools.

I even tried contacting my own alma mater–an ivy-crusted institution in Washington DC that has spat out folks like Al Gore, Jesse Jackson Jr, Jonathan Ogden, Prince Faisal bin Al Hussein of Jordan, and Brit Hume. I had raised the idea of bringing it or another top American boarding school to Singapore to several friends here — friends much wealthier than I am. And every single one of them was excited and genuinely interested in investing in this project. But after a few emails with my alma mater’s Dean of Students, I haven’t heard a peep in months. Which makes me believe there’s no real genuine interest.

I trust at this point I don’t need to spell out my big, and honestly, blatantly obvious idea. I’ll just end this with a suggestion to all the headmasters and members of the Board of Trustees at the top American schools who may happen to read this. When you plan your next vacation, maybe you should consider coming out east for a look-see.

Photo credit: Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock


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