Public or Private? International Families Decide

This post is brought to you by The Cambridge Institute of International Education.


In recent years, the number of international students enrolling in American public schools has steadily increased. Although they only comprise around 5% of all international secondary school enrollments, international students at public schools are bringing a global mindset to public schools. Likewise, these students are receiving a uniquely American education.

Below, we explore key factors that influence an international family’s decision to send their child to a public school rather than a private school. While visa restrictions will likely mean that an international family will overwhelmingly choose a private school, the reasons why a family may consider a public school rather than a private school are relevant to understanding their overall preferences and for understanding future trends.

Perception of Public Education

In both China and Korea, public education is perceived as superior to private education, since the most competitive and best-funded schools are public. Students who choose to pay tuition for private schools in China and Korea likely have test scores that are too low for admission to public schools. Some international families will assume that a public school rather than a private school in America are the same, and will always prefer to attend public schools.

Low Cost

Compared to private schools, American public schools can be a more affordable option for international students. International student tuition for public education accounts for the unsubsidized per pupil cost of public education, and compensates the school district for educating an additional, non-resident student. So, international student tuition typically ranges from $3,000-$20,000 depending on location, not inclusive of living arrangements. This lower price can be an incentive to enroll for international families, and can be a more attractive option for families from countries including Brazil and Vietnam, and middle-class families from countries such as China. While cost is often less of an important factor than ensuring quality of education and safety for many parents, it is always appealing to pay less for a similar education.

Location Capacity

As documented by the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Data, California is the top destination for international students overall. Unsurprisingly, California also hosts the largest number of international students in public schools, with a significant portion of them coming from China. California’s size, strong public education system, convenience in regards to location and (of course) weather explains its popularity as an international student destination. Since the international demand for schools in California is so high, private schools typically fill their spots for international students quickly. Public schools, with typically larger student bodies, can accept additional international students when the supply for private school admissions seats grows small. International families, who are driven to send their child to the U.S. for high school, will explore the option of sending their child to a public school rather than a private school for this reason.

Student Support

Many public schools have diverse student populations, and typically provide additional support to non-native English speakers as part of the district’s public education. With ESL faculty already on staff, they are equipped to handle the language learning needs of international students. The legacy of educating diverse student bodies and catering to their needs can be smoothly adapted for an international student body, which turns into a selling point for families.

Ease of Application

The mission of American public schools is different than that of many private schools, in that they are designed to accept students of a wide range of abilities, and usually have a simpler admissions process. In contrast, many private schools have complicated applications, and unclear metrics for accepting students. For international families, and similarly for American families, an unclear admissions process will deter interest.


In fall of 2013, Cambridge proudly established its Massachusetts Preparatory Program with some of the top public high schools in Massachusetts, offering students the chance to study in one of America’s strongest public school systems for a year. Following their year at Massachusetts public schools, many students will choose to attend a private high school in The Cambridge Network.

For more information on the Massachusetts Preparatory Program, contact us at 781-996-0400 or email Jack Phelan or Bob Maguire, founders of the Massachusetts Preparatory Program, at [email protected]