The popularity of “international schools” has resulted in many underprepared providers scrambling to take advantage of the market, according to a report in Guangzhou Daily on Sunday, with disappointing consequences for students and parents.

While in the past international primary and secondary schools catered only to foreign nationals, China Law Blog predicted in 2015 that schools admitting students of any nationality would see the most growth, as an increasing number of affluent local Chinese families are opting for “bilingual” or “experimental” schools that teach a Western-influenced curriculum.

For parents who can afford the high tuition fees, international schools — as well as other alternative models, from traveling schools to reciting classics — seem like they provide opportunities for students to flourish outside the rigid and highly competitive public school system, and better chances of gaining admission into colleges abroad. Official figures quoted in Caixin state that 523,700 Chinese students enrolled in foreign universities in 2015, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year.

According to China Law Blog, international schools that admit local students in China are subject to oversight from the Ministry of Education on the curriculum side, and from the Ministry of Commerce on the business side. Schools offering qualifications such as U.K.-oriented A-levels, U.S.-oriented Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate typically also require certification for their respective programs.

But growth seems to be outpacing regulation, with Guangzhou Daily reporting that one new Shenzhen school ceased enrollments after its first year, and parents demanded refunds from another after finding that the school’s performance didn’t live up to its advertising. Issues involve hasty openings, a revolving door of management, and disputes between investors and management.

“Because of market demand and inadequate regulation, there is almost no threshold for opening an international school if you have the financial backing,” Ding Hui, principal of C-UK College Shenzhen told Guangzhou Daily. Only 16 schools are registered in Shenzhen as “experimental” private schools offering international programs, in addition to seven international schools that exclusively admit foreign nationals. But Ding said there are many more institutions operating without international school licenses registering as full-time training organizations instead.

Attending an international school is no guarantee of admission to college abroad, Ding said, and parents should bear in mind that after the elementary years, international schools can become a “path of no return” because the curriculum diverges too much from the public curriculum for students to later rejoin the state system and take the gaokao, China’s college entrance examination.

Demand is especially high in Shenzhen, the southern electronics manufacturing hub just north of Hong Kong, because of the city’s high immigrant population, international outlook, and a severe shortage of places in public schools.

Most spots at public schools are reserved for those with a Shenzhen hukou, or local household registration, meaning the children of millions of migrants from elsewhere in China vie for a handful of places. At the “Famous Four” public schools with the best reputations, Guangzhou Daily calculates that local students have less than a 10 percent chance of admission, and students without hukou have only a 1.71 percent chance. Children with Hong Kong residency have been barred from most public schools since a 2012 policy change, even if both parents have mainland residency and work and pay taxes in Shenzhen.

Even for students with local residency, competition is fierce, and public education isn’t without economic costs. Families fight to find apartments with better school district zoning, but Shenzhen’s property market became the most expensive in China in January, ahead of Shanghai and Beijing, according to rankings from SouFun, China’s largest real estate web portal. Tiny apartments measuring around 6 square meters sold within hours this September. To more and more parents, the costs and risks of private education seem worthwhile.

With contributions from Li You.

(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.)

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White