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!

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