Sunday, May 31, 2015

The US college degree is sold, and exported ... if the price is right

A few years ago, when I served as the director of the university's Honors Program, I regularly met with the university president and the provost, mostly to update them about the quality improvement that I was observing in the program's incoming and graduating students.

At one of those meetings, the then president of the university talked about the institutional arrangements that he was putting in place to bring more Chinese students to the university.  He emphasized that many of them were excellent students and that I could think about getting them into Honors as well.

Of course, who wouldn't love working with smart and dedicated students!  But, I refused to aggressively court those students. I told the president that the students would be an awesome addition but as long as they demonstrated fluency in the English language comparable to what I expected from the "native"students, given the writing-intensive nature of the curriculum.  Does it surprise you that the president was not pleased with my response?

Over the years, the university's foreign student population has grown a lot.  From China and from Saudi Arabia.  Perhaps because of the content of the courses that I teach, or perhaps because of my emphasis on reading, writing, and discussing, I rarely ever have a foreign student in my class.  To my knowledge, no student from China or Saudi Arabia has been in the Honors Program even after my exit from there.

Public universities, even the no-names like the one where I teach, actively recruit international students, because it is all about the revenue stream.  They pay full price and more.
Chinese students have become a big market in the United States—and nobody understands this better than the universities themselves. Over 60 percent of Chinese students cover the full cost of an American university education themselves, effectively subsidizing the education of their lower-income American peers.
A few weeks ago, a colleague referred to how the international students are so segregated from the main student body, and from the town itself.  I told him that the university couldn't care because it is all about the money.  "As if they are walking ATMs" I added.
But the symbiotic relationship between cash-strapped American schools and Chinese students is not without its problems. Demand for an overseas education has spawned a cottage industry of businesses in China that help students prepare their applications. The industry is poorly regulated and fraud is rampant. According to Zinch China, an education consulting company, 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit fake recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts, and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive. As a result, many students arrive in the U.S. and find that their English isn’t good enough to follow lectures or write papers.
Any honest faculty member will acknowledge that the typical Chinese student coming for an undergrad education in the US has immense problems with the English language.  But, good luck tracking down a few honest academics!
“American universities are addicted to Chinese students,” Parke Muth, a Virginia-based education consultant with extensive experience in China, told me last year. “They're good test takers. They tend not to get into too much trouble. They're not party animals. The schools are getting a lot of money, and they, frankly, are not doing a lot in terms of orientation.”
But, sooner or later, all these shenanigans get exposed.
A startling number of Chinese students are getting kicked out of American colleges. According to a white paper published by WholeRen, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy, an estimated 8,000 students from China were expelled from universities and colleges across the United States in 2013-4. The vast majority of these students—around 80 percent—were removed due to cheating or failing their classes.
I would bet my money that almost always the students cheated or failed because of their problems with the English language.  It is not the students' fault really--they have been trapped by circumstances, including shortage of college seats in China; pressure from their families; and the mercantile attitude of colleges in granting them admission.  These circumstances have also led to cheating at the college entrance exams like the SAT and TOEFL:
 Fifteen Chinese nationals have been accused of cheating the college entrance examination system with a scheme that involved fake passports and test-taking impostors, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Thursday.
It is not merely these fifteen and the "customers" they served:
Mr. Hickton, the prosecutor, said he believed the issue extended beyond the 15 people charged on Thursday.
“I would not want anyone to be left with the impression that that’s the sole country involved or the scope of it,” he said.
I am not surprised at all.  These are also the kinds of things that happen when education is treated as a business.  But, even the educators don't get it--they are convinced it is a business, as this University of North Carolina trustee declared as the rationale for closing quite a few academic programs:
“We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.”
Ah, yes, coming from the same university where thousands of students over the years took fake "paper courses" in order to make sure they were academically eligible enough to play football and basketball.  Capitalists who are ready to sell college diplomas for the right price!

Maybe it is time I stopped being some old-fashioned academic, and got on with the times, eh!


Anne in Salem said...

My brother told me today about a friend of his son's who graduated with a degree in physical therapy. Getting a job generally requires a master's degree, so she has more schooling ahead. She is already $88K in debt from undergrad. She was advised to file for bankruptcy now as the only affordable way to handle the debt. The bankruptcy would disappear before she wants to buy a house, and she'll have time to rebuild her credit by then. Brilliant scheme, eh?

So many children are told they can have anything they want with absolutely no fiscal reality considered. So many children learn little regard for ethics from their parents - lie about the injury, embellish the resume, cheat the IRS, blow through the stop sign. Of course they grow up to cheat on exams and lie about their skills, whether language or other. What else can we expect? It is a rude lesson at 22 to learn one must work hard for what one wants and that sometimes one cannot afford what one wants. It is a great disservice to the children.

By the way, there is way more to life than just working, as in your Soylent post. What a sad life. A few of those techies should have been here last night - a feast for 17 to celebrate a religious milestone for 3 of my kids. Worth every second of effort for the memories and the delicious food. Ramesh, we need to work on you.

Ramesh said...

Foreign students are indeed courted for the money they bring. This is a worldwide phenomenon and the worst culprit in this is the UK.

An overwhelming majority of the students who seek this are not seeking necessarily a better education. They are really economic and social migrants who are looking for the ticket to come and live in the West - in the case of China, add Australia.

Notice that I mention social migrants too. Economically both China and Saudi Arabia - the countries you mention, are rich. They are looking for the freedom and the western way of life which they do not have n their home countries.

That problem won't go away. In large measure, America has benefited from the migration of talent and so it would be an own goal to stop this. You have paced two barriers to this - one is cost and the other is the visa process. Both filter out a fair number, but many will pass it.

In the true spirit of America, some entrepreneurs must be coming up helping these students learn and integrate better, Probably they exist already. The English problem for Chinese won't be solved easily - you may know that English is a compulsory language for all Chinese from primary school. But how will they really learn the language if they never use it out of class, there are few English newspapers, no English TV channel, no English magazines and when most interesting internet sites are blocked !

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, it is not easy to discharge student debt via bankruptcy, Anne. It is one of those things that Congress made sure to do a few years ago. One might be able to get out of credit-card and mortgage debt via bankruptcy, but student loan debt is an entirely different issue altogether.
Thus, with respect to the cost of hr. ed., the youth are hit with multiple blows: a society that brainwashes them into going to college, but this "voluntary" but "compelled" activity is not a cost that is paid for by society and instead students have to pay for it, and if and when they start their careers after graduation, the student loan debt weighs them down so much that they can't even afford decent rental housing leave alone buying one!

Yes, Ramesh, they come here for a college experience for many reasons. I have no hassles about why they come here, and as an immigrant myself and as one who believes in the intellectual value of looser immigration processes, I welcome young and talented and hardworking people coming here. But, why cheapen the college degree and make universities a diploma mill???
And, yes, China is shortchanging its youth with all those insane bans ... I tell ya, the world is one messed up place! ;)

A religious event for kids for which 17 were invited to a feast. Am guessing it was something like the confirmation sacrament. Yes, whether one is religious nor not, except for the workaholics, the rest of us truly understand how life is about creating memories ... life is not about the hours worked and the $$$ in the bank and the toys that one owns ...

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