The PIE: How did you set the company up?
Andrew Chen: In 1995, I studied nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri, Columbia. I got a job in the admissions office and worked 10 hours per week for $5.25 an hour, I helped them to enhance the website.
Then I went to work at an e-commerce company for three years as a developer and then a nuclear company writing software for eight years. After that I realised I know exactly where I am going to be when I retire, so I quit the job and started on my own.
I founded WholeRen Education in 2010 with Bryan White. He used to be the superintendent for the Pittsburgh public school district. Over the seven years we’ve grown a lot. We have eight offices in the US and four in China. The group company has five companies… offering [services such as] mentoring and tutoring for the students and American homestay services. We have a company called JobUpper to train students to go into the job market.
“We think universities should do more to support international students”
The PIE: What proportion of your clients are from China?
AC: Sometimes Korean students or Arab students come to us and we help them, but our specialty is working with Chinese students. Many of our staff members are bilingual so we really know what they need and their parents want. Also, why they are struggling. This generation of Chinese students are typically single child and they come from a totally different education system to this country. There is language and culture shock. Also they are rich. They have the resources so a lot of the time they don’t think about their future.
The PIE: Would you agree that lots of universities don’t think about immersion?
AC: I agree. They just have too many international students. They don’t have that much resource geared specifically for Chinese students. But Chinese students do need care [made] specific for their culture.
We fill this gap. The state or private university does the coursework, the language centre and we will provide private support to make sure they are successful. Chinese students don’t interact a lot with their peers. We help them to get out of their comfort zones and get into the culture and environment.
The PIE: Do the students pay an annual fee?
“International education does not end at recruitment”
AC: Sometimes an annual fee and sometimes it’s by service. What is good about our service is that [students] have a long term profile with us. We have one case when a student transferred into UC Berkley, he’s very smart, he worked very hard. From community college to UC Berkley, he faced different peers, a different classroom setup. The chemical class was 300 people, in community college it was 30. He got lost, and the coursework was very high, so he got a transfer shock.
We give them special tutoring. Some schools think that [students] should mature and be able to [apply for GRE or find internships or volunteer work] themselves.
With the Chinese culture, if there is someone who can help them, it’s always good.
The PIE: How many Chinese do you estimate need extra support?
AC: We think universities should do more to support international students. Chinese students are a very special group in the international students, many schools have over 50% of the international student population from China.
If schools don’t actively support them it will hurt the level of success of the Chinese students in the school. We have been trying to advocate that many Chinese students and their families are willing to pay extra for an add-on service, such as tutoring, activity arrangements, job advising and graduate school counselling.
International education does not end at recruitment. It should really be benchmarked by how successful the students and alumni are.
“The students get overpolished, overpackaged by their agent in China”
The PIE: How much do students pay?
AC: At community college pay $5,000 a year for our transfer service. We always tell them transfer should be planned when they first get to the school, not in their second year.
We have a higher level of service with academic tutoring to improve their GPA in our centres. In Seattle, our staff members travel to 10 schools in the area every week.
We have intensive support for student really having issues. There are too many rich families from China, their goal of sending their student to the US is really a way of compensating their loss in parenting.
The PIE: So some of the Chinese students are not incentivised because they are too rich?
AC: There are a certain number of families that have a lot of money but the kids are not well guided.
The students get overpolished, overpackaged by their agent in China. They cannot fit into the rigorous academic level [at their new school] because everything was done for them. Even some students hire test takers to take their TOEFL and SAT. Once they come here they cannot stay in that level. There are commercial services that help the student to write papers and take exams.
There is a girl who came to us having been dismissed by her school. We asked why. For two semesters, she hired another girl to take classes for her and in the third semester, she decided to go to class once just to see. The professors asked her ‘who are you?’ ‘I am so and so.’ ‘No you’re not, I’ve been teaching you for two years and I have never met you so you are another person.’ Then it got reported.
“I always say that president Trump did one good thing for international education”
The PIE: Do you think one of the problems is that pre-departure students don’t get the right counselling?
AC: It’s a very big shock for the student. They come to here, they have jetlag [during orientation] and schools tell them we have this and that, and by the way, you cannot plagiarise – it just doesn’t click. Some schools have placement tests, so their focus is on that, so it’s not effective. This message delivery is not a one-time deal.
We have the capacity to tell them in their own language and their parents that over here there is a Federal Education and Family Privacy Act. If the student is over 18, they have the right to their whole education record. The schools cannot contact the parents and we know how to handle this. We talk to the parent directly and ask them to tell their kids to release [their records] to us. Parents are happy to do that – it’s a different culture in China.
The PIE: In most situations are you in touch with the parents?
AC: If we can get in touch with parents, it’s a lot better. Because of the lack of parenting, the fast change and the single child scenario, many students are not as mature when compared to American born peers. They need help. We respect them and give them time to mature, it’s just a process they need.
The PIE: Do you see any change in terms of what programs students want? Is there a growing interest in transfer rather than coming in as a freshman?
AC: Community college doesn’t exist in China and the transfer system doesn’t exist in China. I always say that president Trump did one good thing for international education – both he and his daughter transferred to Wharton School. Obama also transferred from a liberal arts college into Columbia. By those examples, parents know what transfer is. About 37% of all American college graduates have experienced at least one transfer before they get their degree.
“There is a lot of competition in China. Many US schools don’t realise; they are too arrogant”
It’s not just about transfer from community college to universities, but also from regular four-year universities to a better one. Over here, we educate the school community about transfer students. They are already here; they don’t have a visa problem. Every student in community college will transfer.
The PIE: Will you expand outside of the US?
AC: We have a lot to do just serving Chinese students in the US. The market we are in is something we are really good at. Chinese students consist of 30% of all international students in the US so that is enough for us. There are fears that less will come and less will learn English. I don’t think so because in China the growth of students going into international schools is 30%. If they start this early, the US is going to be their number one destination.
[US will still be the first choice] if the US schools adopt the change. There is a lot of competition in China. Many US schools don’t realise; they are too arrogant. Too much thinking ‘I’ve been running this way for 100 years why should I change?’ I think the Australians don’t think that way.
Now international students in the US are only 5%. There are 4,000 schools and maybe 300 schools are in this agency model. But all the Australia schools, all the UK schools and in Canada a lot of the public secondary schools are in this model. I think [US schools] really need to change fast.
Maybe Trump and the travel ban is a good thing to make them think about actively focus on certain markets and adjust. Many schools need students, especially a lot of public universities.
The PIE: How do you see the agency market in China changing?
AC: In the past, the parents didn’t know about a lot of the schools. The agency could tell them which school to go to. With the internet, the parents know.
Families that want to go to the Ivy League schools are going to demand more from agencies. Many agencies are doing the T-4 route, so the four years before the students go abroad, they prepare the students for four years [instead of one]. It’s more of a service provider than an information broker.
There are more families from the upper-middle class that are price conscious. They [want it to be] worth their investment.