Chinese students have a new favorite summer destination: Harvard University.

So many students and their families are visiting Boston- area schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University that Hainan Airlines Co. started direct flights from Beijing to Boston in June and increased the number from four to seven a week in July and August. Tufts gets so many requests from large organized groups that it runs separate tours for them.

“My parents enjoy listening to my description of schools, such as the campus views, the school culture and the feeling of visiting them,” said Yuhan Wu, 16, from Beijing, who is on a three-week college scouting trip that included Harvard.

Yihan Gao, a 17-year-old high school senior from Beijing, whispered in front of Widener Library in Harvard Yard about how she borrowed her friend’s student card on a previous visit to sneak into the library and explore.

The surge in interest underscores both the prestige of obtaining a degree from Boston-area colleges and the burgeoning affluence of China’s middle class. The number of Chinese students in the metropolitan area almost tripled to 10,913 last year from 3,800 in 2009. That’s faster than growth nationally, which more than doubled, according to the Institute of International Education in New York.

Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Northeastern University and Boston University in Boston, each ranked in the top 25 schools hosting international students in the 2012-2013 academic year, according to the institute. Chinese make up the largest segment of foreign students at 27 percent.

Starting Early

“There’s a healthy influx and desire for them to come here to America for school,” Evan Saunders, chief executive officer of Attract China, a tourism marketing firm, said in a telephone interview. “Chinese families will even visit places like Harvard when their children are five or six. No pressure, right? They’ll come for Harvard but stay for Tufts or BU.”

Tufts has seen an increase in both Chinese visitors and applications to attend the university in the Boston suburb of Medford, said Jen Simons, associate director of admissions. Prospective students often come during the summer as part of organized groups of 20 or 30.

The request for special groups already has “surpassed all of the requests we had last summer,” Simons said.

Wu and Gao came to Boston through Beijing-based Elite Scholars China, which organizes tours and provides college counseling for students interested in studying in the U.S. Its $11,000 three-week summer program includes flights, room, board, SAT and writing classes at Wellesley College and tours of schools around Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, co- founder Tomer Rothschild said in a phone interview.

Harvard Yard

On an overcast Sunday, students from Elite Scholars visited Harvard Yard, soaking in their surroundings around the statue of founder John Harvard, a sea of umbrellas clouding it from view.

While Harvard has always been popular among China’s elite, the 2000 publication of “Harvard Girl,” which chronicles how a Chinese family raised their daughter to gain acceptance into the university, has made the school popular among the growing middle class, said Jamie Fleishman, an Elite Scholars counselor.

Students snapped pictures of everything in sight, including a dusty basement room with little more than an old wooden table, a few chairs and a whiteboard.

Brown University is Gao’s top choice among U.S. colleges. She attended a summer program at the Providence, Rhode Island, Ivy League school before joining the Elite Scholars group.

Several of the students went to academic camps at elite U.S. colleges or high schools, Fleishman said.

Resume Entry

“It’s a bullet point to add to your resume,” said Zhiquan Zeng, another 17-year-old rising senior from Beijing. She didn’t attend an additional program.

Since Elite Scholars’ inception in 2010, the number of Chinese participating in the annual tour has tripled to almost 30 students.

The increased summer visits and enrollment is a function of the growth of China’s economy, especially in the past five years, said Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education. Education is so important to China’s middle class and families save a lot of money for it, he said.

“Made in USA is a very important brand,” Goodman said. “It represents educational quality, opportunity, and an open- and merit-based admissions process that differs from China’s.”

Mingyao Li, a 17-year-old Elite Scholars student, said the freedom and access at American schools appeals most to him.

“In Chinese universities, the professors will teach you knowledge in preparation for the final exams whereas in the U.S., professors guide and help you find your own interests,” Li said.

Full Fare

China’s economy expanded 7.5 percent in the year through the second quarter and the pace of growth has stayed above 6 percent since 2009. In comparison, the U.S. economy grew 1.5 percent in the year through March.

The attraction works both ways. Beyond the diversity that foreign students bring to a campus, many, if not most, pay full fare and don’t rely on direct financial aid or discounts from the school toward the cost to attend. Undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board at Harvard for the 2014-2015 year is $58,607, according to its website. At Northeastern, it’s $57,490. Neither include costs for books, travel and personal expenses.

“Students coming from China are fairly well-heeled,” said Joel Chusid, an executive director at Hainan Airlines. “The kids who come to school here have the financial wherewithal.”

‘Cultural Bridge’

The airline’s decision to start a direct Boston route is more significant than if an American carrier such as Delta had done so, IIE’s Goodman said.

“This really makes a statement in China about the cultural bridge it’s building to Boston,” Goodman said.

When Chinese families go through the decision-making process and compare universities, many parents say they prefer a school if it’s a direct flight from Beijing, Rothschild said.

“Nowadays, people have become more rational and do not only regard the rankings of schools as the only resource,” Li, one of Elite Scholar students, said. “They have understood that really going to see a school will partly guide their choice.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kelly Blessing in Boston at To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at Chris Staiti.

Photo Credit: The exterior of the Harvard Book Store. Hugo Pardo Kuklinski / Flickr