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Study Abroad: Boarding School or Host Family

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Studying Abroad

In recent years, studying abroad has become an international trend with more and more parents sending their children to study in foreign countries. If in 2001, there were only 2.1 million students going abroad, the number more than doubled in 2017, standing at 4.6 million students.

In addition, students are going abroad at a younger age. For those under the age of 18, most host countries require them to have accommodation arrangement and guarantors.

Top host family destinations

Top host family destinations

Parents of minors commonly face with the tasks of choosing between either boarding schools or host families. From the perspective of international students, there are things parents should consider regarding both types of settings as outlined in this article.

What is a Boarding School?

The boarding school model has its origin dated back centuries ago, and it has spread across the world with varying functions and philosophies. In the United States, most boarding schools aim at high school students aging from 14 to 18 to prepare them for colleges and universities.

Typically, a boarding school has residential components for students to live on campus, as opposed to day schools where students go home after classes. Most schools allow boarding students to go home at weekend, or over holidays.

While some boarding schools design extensive curriculum beyond classroom, some boarding schools are just purely residential. Similarly, some boarding schools are only for boarding students, while others permit a significant portion of day students.

What is a Host Family?

A host family is the family that invites and hosts international students as a family member while they study abroad. Depending on the program, most host families get paid for hosting the students.

While there are minimum requirements for what host family must provide, often including a private, fully-furnished room, meals, Internet connection, and other support; the provision can be flexible and varied depending on the family and the relationships between the family and the student.

Boarding School vs. Host Family: Things to Consider

  • Tuition, fees, and accommodation
  • College admission rate
  • Supervision
  • Safety
  • Learning activities beyond the classroom
  • Access to sports/recreational facilities
  • Personal growth opportunities

Tuition and Fee

Boarding schools are often more expensive; the tuition and fee plus room and board can range from $20,000 to over $65,000 per year. Most prestigious, high-ranking schools cost over $50,000 per year. Although schools offer a wide range of scholarships and financial aids, international students are often not qualified for financial aid, and scholarships are very competitive.

On the other hand, the cost when living with host family can be more flexible. If students attend public schools and live in low-cost areas, parents can expect to pay as low as $15,000 per year.

College Admission Rate

Most of the college preparation and application must be conducted individually. Thus, all students, regardless of where they attend high schools, must work hard, sharpening their academic knowledge and social skills, earning high GPA and standardized test scores, and participating in a wide range of extra-curriculum activities/projects to become eligible for their top choice universities/ colleges.

Fortunately, most schools offer AP classes, college-preparatory workshops, and college consultation/counselors to help students prepare and learn more information about the process. In addition, the majority of high school teachers are very helpful and willing to help students with their college applications.

Many schools, including boarding, public and private schools, also establish an extensive alumni network which generously supports and facilitates their next cohort to settle down at a certain college.

Boarding students might have an advantage that they basically live the same life as college students, away from their families; therefore, their transition to college life will be much easier. On the other hand, many foreign students still keep the relationship and receive tremendous support from their host parents even after they leave for colleges.

All students must work hard to prepare for colleges and universities

All students must work hard to prepare for colleges and universities


For parents of international students who can live countries apart, the safety of their children is the top priority. Campus is often considered safe areas with designated police, security staff and proper surveillance equipment. In addition, students will be monitored closely 24/7 by qualified staff to assure their safety and well-being.

Generally, boarding students live in dormitories, which are assigned to a team of resident faculty members to provide round-the-clock assistance to the students. Each dorm also has a team of student proctors or residential assistants to help students with all their problems.

Moreover, by agreeing to attend the school and stay on campus, students have to follow a code of conduct, which is meant to facilitate co-living and co-learning in dormitories. Students have to obtain permission if they want to leave campus or carry out certain activities.

Obviously there will be misconduct and mischief among teenage students, but there will also be disciplinary penalties to enforce boundaries.

Nonetheless, there are several criticisms against boarding schools citing sociological and psychological issues. For example, some parents feel like their children are totally institutionalized with little or no freedom when living full-time on campus with 24/7 supervision.

Moreover, students might be completely detached from the real world and from their original culture and background, thus gaining false impression of the reality, and becoming lacking in real-life skills and wisdom. Some boarding schools are accused of perpetuating status-quo and entitlement, and manipulating students' both physical and emotional life.

Studying together at common study place

Studying together at common study place

If students choose homestay instead, they will be supervised by both the schools during school hours, and the host parents outside classroom. Sometimes the tasks will be overlapped, but sometimes there will be gaps when the students are left on their own.

Each host family will have different rules to set boundaries and maintain discipline. Since host parents also hold other jobs and obligations, they might not be able to dedicate all their time to monitor and support the students.


The recent increasing occurrence of mass shootings and violence adds more concerns for parents. In the first six months of 2018, there were 134 mass shooting incidents in the United States with 23 school shootings, frightening parents whose children live on the school premises.

In response, many schools have reinforced their security system, installing more metal and weapon detective machine, and setting up safety guideline and protocol. Yet, students should exercise common sense and safety check to protect themselves even when travelling on campus.

School shooting map in the United States in the first 6 months of 2018

School shooting map in the United States in the first 6 months of 2018

As for living with host family, parents might worry about possible abuse or characteristics mismatch. As the host family selection process is careful and sophisticated, emphasizing fitness between students and host families, the unfortunate events are negligible.

However, if the students feel uncomfortable with the host family, it is very important that they and their family communicate the issue to the program coordinators and request a change of host.

Learning Beyond the Classroom

Many boarding schools create opportunities for students to learn outside class hours. Since students live together and in close proximity to teachers, they can continue their academic discussions beyond classrooms. Dorms often have designated study hours from 8pm to 10pm, and common study rooms.

Facilities including libraries, labs, and computer rooms are available for students to use at all times. Furthermore, boarders are encouraged and sometimes required to participate in many extra-curriculum activities. These activities can include music and sporting events, shopping, meal, and organized out-of-town trips.

Moreover, there are often many clubs and organizations on campus for students to join and socialize. Through these activities, students gain leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills.

However, if the students have special penchants for activities or sports that are not offered by the school, it will be very difficult for the students to find opportunities to pursue their interests.

Learning about a new culture by joining host family's traditional events

Learning about a new culture by joining host family's traditional events

When living with host family, students shall take full responsibility for their study after school. The host family can give students some extra help if possible, but generally, students have to complete their schoolwork on their own, or go to school to seek assistance. However, living with a host family is a great way to learn about the new country’s culture, norms, behaviors, and especially languages.

Preparing meals, watching television, shopping, or just simply observing the role-sharing in the family can give students a glimpse of the family structure and values. Regarding learning new languages, people in a host family speak the authentic local language, so students have a good chance of learning real idioms, phrases and expressions that the teachers/professors rarely use to talk to their students.

Access to Extensive Sports/Recreational Facilities

Most boarding schools are well-equipped with recreational, gym and sports facilities. These amenities are often open to boarders so they can use freely in their free time. What makes them more interesting is that they can take part in these activities together with their classmates or roommates, which encourages more regular and efficient usage.

The schools or student organizations also host various fun games or tournaments to attract more students to participate and find talents for the school’s sports team.

Conspicuously, these facilities are not always available at home. Some host families have yards, gardens, some entertainment facilities, and swimming pools available for the family and the host students to enjoy during free time. Nevertheless, if the foreign students want to get access to gym or other amenities after class, they can sign up for some local fitness or sports clubs.

In addition, the host parents can take the students or give them permission to stay in school outside class hours to participate in extra-curriculum activities or use the school facilities.

Personal Growth Opportunities

Living in boarding schools means the students are on their own, away from their family and their familiar upbringing setting and culture. Although many schools offer mentors and advisors to closely supervise the students academically and emotionally and try to establish a home-away-from-home atmosphere at dormitories, students maintain their autonomy and freedom.

Hence, through their experience at boarding schools, teenage students can learn greatly to become independent, make their own decisions and be responsible for their behaviors.

When they have difficulties whether with adjusting to a new environment or with keeping up with the class workload, they have to overcome the obstacles on their own. Consequently, the harder they try, the more independent they become.

The same can be expected for living with a host family. Although international students still have their host moms and dads, and even siblings, they live in a very different setting with different rules, values, and role-sharing system.

While the family feeling is present, the expectations of the host parents and birth parents are not the same. In essence, students live and have to create a new relationship with strangers, make their own decisions, and bear responsibility. The transition makes students become more mature and independent.

Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can tremendously enrich a student's life and shape their personalities and outlook on life. Nevertheless, parents should consider carefully the family’s financial situation, and their children’s readiness to embark on such a journey.

Whether living in dormitories or with host families, the students should prepare well in advance what to expect and learn basic skills to adapt to a new environment. Moreover, parents should keep in touch closely with their children to understand what they undergo to provide timely physical and emotional support.


Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 27, 2018:

This is an eye opener to see the change in the percentage countries are getting of foreign students. There is a downturn for the U.S. and China and Canada came in the top 10. Our grand children usually stay in the dorm for their first year and move on when they are more familiar with the place.