Friday, March 25, 2016

Higher education as a snake oil business

A few months ago, I expressed my worry to my department colleagues over what I believe was a sure downtrend in university-wide student enrollment and, therefore, the revenue stream in the very near future.  In one of those emails, I wrote:
particularly against the background of demographics in the K-12 pipeline, the economic chaos in Saudi Arabia and the uncertain transition issues in China--the two countries that send students to WOU
The good thing is that I can look at the trail of evidence--in emails, in the blog, and in the op-eds--and feel good that I was on the right track.  But, that does no good at all.  Living a version of the Cassandra Curse is no fun.  When my worries come true, well, it ain't the time to celebrate!

Many public universities, like the one where I teach, have for a few years now been actively recruiting students from China and Saudi Arabia in order to improve their finances.  It is a simple  formulation that international students equal money.  It is not that I am opposed to international students; after all, decades ago I was one.  But, my worry has been that universities were not seeing these international students as individuals but as $$$.  In disgust, I have on more than one occasion complained that the university is treating them like walking ATMs.

Such misery loves company.  The New York Times quoted a physics professor who is quitting Idaho State University:
They viewed these students as A.T.M. machines,
The "these students" he refers to are also students from Saudi Arabia.
By some estimates, the one million international students in the United States generate a $30.5 billion boost to the economy. The largest group comes from China, but Saudi Arabia, the fourth-largest country of origin, supplies more than 70,000 students to schools like Arizona State, Western Kentucky, Cleveland State and Southern Illinois.
Some of these institutions are particularly concerned about the impact of a recent announcement by the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which supports most of the students from Saudi Arabia. The program is facing “deep funding cuts,” according to Moody’s Investors Service
Even worse than treating them like ATMs, the universities do not seem to care that there is very little interaction between the international students and the natives.  Even at our campus with a very small percentage of foreign students, the Chinese students seem to hang out with fellow Chinese, the Saudis with their own, and the university officials apparently do not see anything to worry about because the financial bottom-line looks healthy, for now.

If you felt like discounting the NY Times because it is a liberal rag, then here is the mouthpiece of the business world, the Wall Street Journal, reporting on similar issues while focusing on the Chinese students:
A decade ago, facing falling state financial support, Oregon State decided it needed to attract more students from outside the U.S. State appropriations per full-time college student have fallen 45% in the past five years. ...
Oregon State’s international population surpassed 3,300 last fall, up from 988 in 2008, the year before INTO began operating. The revenue has enabled the university to add 300 tenure-track professors and expand overall enrollment to nearly 29,000 from about 19,000 during the same period.
It is one thing to bring in those students and, thereby, vastly improve the budget.  It is another when students and their learning, which is what a university should be about, become roadkill.  
One concentration, the school’s accountancy masters of business, now has more Chinese than American students, says senior professor Roger Graham Jr. That raises questions, he says, such as, “Do I stick with the original learning objectives or modify them” to suit the needs of Chinese students?
And the need for modification?
On the ground, American campuses are struggling to absorb the rapid and growing influx—a dynamic confirmed by interviews with dozens of students, college professors and counselors.
Students such as Mr. Shao are finding themselves separated from their American peers, sometimes through choice. Many are having a tough time fitting in and keeping up with classes. School administrators and teachers bluntly say a significant portion of international students are ill prepared for an American college education, and resent having to amend their lectures as a result.
But, who cares, right, as long as the money keeps rolling in!  Except that the ATMs are leaving:
For Idaho State, it is a moment of truth, with a loss of more than $2 million a year in tuition alone from 100 students who left last summer. More declines are expected.
“We’re preparing for the worst,” said Scott Scholes, the associate vice president for enrollment management.
As colleges across the country, including prestigious universities like the University of California, Berkeley, second-tier state universities and little-known private institutions, look to make up for budget cuts and declining enrollment by accepting more foreign students, the situation at Idaho State is a cautionary tale, an example of the complexities of integrating foreign students into a campus and a community.
If only people listened to me!


Mike Hoth said...

International students are like any American cash cow, they're not permanent. The 50s were a period of growth and wealth because we were rebuilding a dozen countries, and then everybody wondered where the money went. The housing bubble had to pop, and some day international students won't need the US.

To be fair about the Chinese students not fitting in, my wife and I both lived with one for a year. Her roommate, Effie, was shy but willing to talk to my wife and there seemed to be a collective effort to cross the cultural gap. Then there was Wenbo, my roommate, who seemed to be terrified of non-Chinese people. He actually did his dishes in the bathroom so he could avoid being caught in the kitchen! If Wenbo is not alone, I would say that some international students can't be helped and they aren't ready to cross the ocean for university life.

Ramesh said...

I am surprised at "international students not fitting in ". As for the Chinese, I expect it to be mostly due to discomfort with English. Else, the cream of the student population in China, which is what will come to the US, will match and outdo any international group. It is possibly the extremely wealthy, but otherwise not bright Chinese, for whom lectures may have to be "modified". If that's the group that's landing up at your university, then I can understand. If you recruit the best from Chinese universities, then they will outperform the "natives". Yes, 80% of Chinese graduates won't fit into an American university environment. But 20% will and 20% of 4 million a year is enough to probably fill all American universities.

Similar story with Indians, with the added advantage that the cream of Indian students will speak excellent English and can probably articulate the merits of Karl Anthony Towns over Anthony Davis better than you can.(go look up Google !).

If you keep aside the $$$ issue, internationalisation of the student community will actually benefit American students and the country in general, immensely. You should be trying to make international students fit in better rather than griping about the need to modify your courses.

Is there any reduction in the Chinese coming ? Yes, there are some macroeconomic issues there, but there is enough and more money for lots of Chinese to keep coming for another decade. I suspect its your visa officers who are the cause - as always they would make Trump or Cruz proud.

Sriram Khé said...

Of course I had to Google for "Karl Anthony Towns over Anthony Davis" ... one quick scan at the screen with the results told me way more than I wanted to know ;)

Yes, the fundamental idea is that internationalization of education will be a win-win. However, once you get away from the elite universities, which are not the focus of the news reports that I had linked to either, then what we find is that the "natives" and the "foreigners" do not mix and even the little interaction that they have is superficial. So superficial that it ends up reinforcing all the negative stereotypes! The real examples that Mike provides are not outliers.

Keep in mind that my post, as is my work life, is about undergraduate education. Graduate schooling is completely different. BTW, re. Ramesh's comment "You should be trying to make international students fit in better" I urge you to read the two data-rich reports that I had linked to.

For now the Chinese students are coming. But, soon, thanks to the demographic issues, their numbers will begin to decrease similar to how the Japanese student numbers started decreasing.

Posts popular the last 30 days