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American private schools now need to weigh the consequences of accepting the kids of Russian billionaires, experts say

Doree Lewak | Mar 17, 2022, 7:45 AM

There’s been a growing chorus of calls to revoke the student visas of the children of Russian oligarchs in the US and the UK, but posh private schools in New York and along the Northeast find themselves in a sticky spot ahead of an inevitable wave of rich Russian kids wanting a spot at such schools.

Amanda Uhry, the founder of Manhattan Private School Advisors, a service for parents looking to place their children in competitive private or public schools, told Insider she’d seen an uptick in calls from Russian parents trying to send their kids to school in the US as the conflict in Ukraine escalated.

Uhry added that while she’d been dealing with this population for years, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the driving desire for a US-based education.

“Above all else, these are also parents, and they’re concerned about their child. Before that, it was for clout — now, of course, it’s for safety. It’s for both,” she said. “These people are parents, in addition to being billionaires — they want their kids to be safe, and these kids are very safe in America or England.”

Schools now need to worry about optics and finances

While Russian parents are trying to send their children to school in the US, it’s a question mark whether the schools themselves will take them in.

Russian oligarchs have been targeted with sanctions by US and European officials in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine in hopes that would convince Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisors to stop the invasion. A group of bipartisan lawmakers in Congress even plan to introduce the Yachts for Ukraine Act, which would allow authorities to seize and sell off Russian oligarchs’ assets to provide aid to Ukraine.

While these sanctions target multimillion-dollar homes and yachts, it’s not beyond reasoning that other trappings of “ill-begotten gains” — as President Joe Biden put it in his State of the Union address — could include $60,000-a-year prep schools.

It’s a no-win situation for those prep schools that likely don’t want to enter the geopolitical fray, even as they will invariably take a financial hit from shunning an oligarch. According to Uhry, Russian billionaires are known for donating to the schools where they send their children.

Of the Russian kids populating pricey prep schools in the US, Uhry added: “There are plenty of kids in NYC private schools who are the sons and daughters of Russian billionaires.” She declined to name any schools.

Open Doors, which tracks international students studying stateside, found that international-student enrollment in US higher education was down 15% in the 2020-21 school year from the previous year at about 914,000 students from about 1.07 million in the 2019-20 school year.

Some worry about bullying and discrimination toward Russian kids

One education expert shared concerns about his Russian student clientele in the US after noticing an eerie silence following the invasion.

“It’s so strange these students over the past few weeks have not been answering us at all,” said Christopher Rim, the founder of the education and college-consulting firm Command Education, which specializes in finding the right college for their clients and boasts a 100% acceptance rate. The firm has a handful of Russian clients studying in boarding schools along the Northeast.

Rim and his staff checked in to see how the students were faring amid the war, with no response, and noticed one high-school senior who normally had a flurry of social-media activity scrubbed their Instagram account.

One of his students, a Russian high-school senior awaiting acceptance letters from universities, asked Rim if she should address the elephant in the room, fearful that colleges would renege on an acceptance in light of the political situation.

“She said she doesn’t want the schools to disregard her application,” Rim said, adding that while some of his students had been studying in the US since sixth grade, details about their private lives were spotty.

“One of the clients spends the entire summer on a yacht. The parents won’t let their child do any internship or anything,” he said about a ninth grader studying in a boarding school.

Lilly Yu, the founder of NYC’s InAmerica Education, which works with international students studying in private and boarding schools in the US, said she had faith in schools not to allow bullying or discrimination.

“The schools know war is not started by the people — it’s political, and it’s from another level,” she said.

One New York City mom, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her children’s privacy, told Insider that her two children in private schools had a coterie of Russian friends, offspring of oligarchs and the superwealthy.

“There’s been a Russian-Upper East Side community for years. They all know the Roman Abramovichs,” she said, referencing the Russian billionaire and owner of the Chelsea Football Club, whose assets were just frozen by Britain.

She added that the friendly relations hadn’t broken down yet.

“Right now, there’s no anti-Russian sentiment for those already integrated into the community,” she said.

Dana Haddad, an educational consultant and the founder of New York Admissions, which specializes in helping parents navigate the admission process to public and private schools, has seen the perils of social shunning since the conflict erupted, even as it’s been de rigueur for years for Russians to enjoy an American education.

“I’ve had Russian kids here be bullied, based on what’s going on,” she said. “You’re Russian; you’re bad. You can’t come to this party. We don’t want to go out with you.”

Revoking visas won’t do much in terms of war

Ultimately, experts say revoking student visas is unlikely and lacks any muscle in moving the needle of the war or having a meaningful effect.

“As a general rule of thumb, the state department has always been very averse to making the sins of the father the sins of the son. And there are understandable reasons for doing that,” Reuel Gerecht, a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC, think tank, told Insider.

While the president would have the authority to execute it on national security grounds, it wouldn’t achieve much, Gerecht said, adding that yanking visas was one of those “showy, shiny things” meant “just to punish them and to isolate” Russians.

“Schools might want to protect themselves from possible embarrassment,” he said of the sensitive position of schools accepting Russian elites, adding: “But, then again, only the very tippy top of the Russian totem pole is known. There could be a lot of very, very wealthy Russians let in, and it’s not going to be radioactive.”

Ultimately, it’s a political calculus for schools. “It’s entirely possible that that attitude might for a certain time influence the decision of admission committees,” he said.

One positive development that may come out of this terror is opportunities for Ukrainian kids.

“You might see a few universities go out of their way to find Ukrainian kids and admit them,” Gerecht said. “That would be a nice thing if they did.”



Originally published in Insider on March 17, 2021

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