As the world’s most dynamic large economy, China continues to make headlines. Yet, many of the structural forces that are shaping the nation’s future are poorly understood. In this article I explore the factors driving change in China’s education sector and the technology platform enabling millions of students to access resources and opportunities abroad.

One child, one chance

China’s demographic imbalances are well documented. The one-child policy, implemented in 1980 to control population growth, has resulted in households where a single child has six guardians – two parents and four grandparents.

Across socio-economic groups, families pool resources and make disproportionately large investments in the child’s education. In China, household expenditure on education rose 94% in the five years preceding 2012, according to research by Euromonitor.

This has stoked individual rivalries within China’s ultra-competitive education system. The system, which ranks students and schools from primary level, fosters a “get ahead or fall behind” mentality, where children must prioritize academic performance or risk losing coveted advancement opportunities.

As students mature, the competition dramatically intensifies. Students across China spend countless hours during their secondary-school years preparing for the gāokǎo examination. Heavily influenced by the imperial civil service exams, the gāokǎo is the sole determinant for university placement and, disconcertingly, eventual professional opportunities.

Despite impressive advances in the past quarter-century, few Chinese universities rank among the global top 250, leaving students and their families eager for alternative paths to academic and professional success.

The lure of the West

The uncertainties and pressures of the Chinese system create a demand for high-quality Western education and the opportunities it offers. Several of China’s most adept scholars look to Western universities to distinguish themselves as future leaders of business, academia and government.

These students are attracted to rigorous coursework and engaging extracurricular activities that build critical thinking. Young scholars also want a global network of peers and an internationally recognized degree. A Western diploma affords significant advantages for returning jobseekers and can serve as a springboard to professional success.

But barriers to an overseas education persist, even for excellent candidates. Instructions and materials are written in a foreign language. The personal statement must display polished self-reflection and be accompanied by letters of reference from teachers (most unable or unwilling to write in English). Difficult exams requiring substantial study are dizzyingly expressed in acronyms (was that TOEFL or IELTS?), and all the while there is the apprehension that the competition knows something you don’t.

Penalties of ‘pay to play’

The desperate search for a competitive edge, along with a massive asymmetry of information, has led to the rise of unethical “study abroad” agencies, which offer a pricey, white-glove concierge service to China’s international applicants. Many prey on the anxiety of single-child households and rely on dishonest practices such as writing essays for applicants, falsifying recommendation letters and even doctoring transcripts and test scores.

Until recently, Chinese students seeking admission overseas had few practical alternatives to these agencies. University admissions websites provide basic information but little actionable advice, while web forums are rife with hearsay and conflicting ideas. Students are left with the undesirable choice of following dubious guidance from anonymous online posters or spending thousands of dollars on second-hand information from agents with questionable credentials.

These structural barriers typically benefit only the agencies and the few wealthy applicants able to afford exorbitant fees (upwards of $25,000 for boutique services). Students of lesser means are deterred, and universities miss out on quality applicants who could have contributed to laboratory research, classroom discussion and campus life. As it is, the “pay to play” agency model sometimes dupes universities into accepting underqualified students who are unable to handle the rigors of English instruction and advanced learning.

This is a penalty not only for many deserving students and universities but also to nations which are unable to produce the skilled and motivated graduates needed to face 21st century challenges.

An affordable alternative

As a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, I completed a research project on China’s overseas admissions market and realized there must be a better way for Chinese students to apply and for universities to identify the right international talent.

I founded ChaseFuture to expand university access by providing an effective, ethical and affordable alternative. Our vision is for to become a hub for students navigating the application process, as they transition to university life and prepare for professional success.  As a social enterprise, our team of 200 admissions experts provides applicants with reliable information and the resources to succeed independently. With an internet connection we can reach any student anywhere. To date, 10 million students from more than 120 countries have accessed ChaseFuture’s online resources.

Many of ChaseFuture’s clients are published authors, patent holders, national athletes, internationally exhibited artists, and rising business or government leaders. These students are determined to earn admission at top universities but unwilling to cut ethical corners in preparing their applications. Our role is to help break through the information asymmetry that exists for Chinese students traversing the Western application process.

Henry and Wendy

Two students we’ve mentored, Hanfeng “Henry” Liu and Weiqiong “Wendy” Sun, are representative of our typical clients: ambitious and accomplished young scholars from working-class families.

We begin engagements by learning about our client’s academic background and interests before discussing their goals for higher education and professional success. Henry, a mountaineer and young businessman, had the goal of eventually becoming China’s foreign minister. He sought a “top five” public policy Master’s programme in the United States. Wendy, an entrepreneurial campus leader, wanted to reform China’s education system to foster cross-cultural understanding.

We connected them to admissions experts at their target universities, who helped them showcase their accomplishments with a polished CV and topics for an engaging personal statement drawn from their life experiences. In many cases, we also equip applicants with strategies to prepare for standardized exams, find available scholarships and build relationships with professors. All of this is accomplished through our online workspace, where students and admissions experts can look over their materials together and connect for digital face-to-face meetings.

Wendy was recently admitted to Master’s programmes at Columbia, UChicago, UPenn and Yale, with scholarship funding. In 2013, Henry matriculated at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and has gone on to earn a research position at the prestigious Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, a leading international security affairs research institute. Henry now advises Professor Robert Pape, CPOST Director and leading foreign policy strategist, on US-China security issues, and is helping to organize engagement opportunities between government and military leaders in the US and China. Henry has built extraordinary experience toward his goal of becoming China’s foreign minister.

A global vision

Aspiring applicants typically lack the know-how, resources and support to succeed. This presents both an enormous challenge and opportunity for committed service providers to give millions of students all over the world the information, tools and mentorship they need to triumph over the structural barriers of applying to university and transitioning to life abroad.

At ChaseFuture, we are proud to support the ever-increasing number of international students who share their stories and diverse perspectives on Western campuses, helping to create mutual understanding among future leaders and to lay the foundation for peace and prosperity in the 21st century. As the platform grows, we will continue to expand education access and pursue our global vision with integrity.

Author: Greg Nance is the Founder and CEO of ChaseFuture and the Co-Founder and Chairman of Moneythink, a financial capability NGO recognized by the Obama Administration.

Image: Graduates throw their mortar boards after their graduation ceremony as they take a picture in front of the statue of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Fudan University in Shanghai June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Aly Song