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September/ October 2013 International Students: Separate but Profitable

A boom in foreign undergrads is shoring up the finances of America’s flagship universities, but at a price.

By Paul Stephens

According to data on Purdue’s Web site, from 2007 to 2012, while the total campus population, graduate and undergraduate, stayed about flat, the number of students from Indiana fell by 3,323. During the same period, the enrollment of Chinese students increased by 3,156, a nearly one-to-one replacement of Hoosiers for Chinese students. At the undergraduate level, the enrollment of Indiana resident undergrads fell by 3,447, despite Indiana’s high school graduating class increasing roughly 10 percent; international students increased by 2,864. The Great Recession occurred during this period, an event that presumably increased the numbers of Americans trying to get into public schools because their parents could no longer afford pricy private schools.

Purdue is not unique in this pattern. Just across the state border from Purdue at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, there are 268 fewer undergrad students from Illinois today than there were in 2003, and 3,318 more international students.

Six years ago, after administrators at Urbana-Champaign announced plans to enroll more out-of-state undergrads, there was a widespread public outcry. The administrators backed down, promising to keep out-of-state enrollment at roughly 10 or 12 percent. But since then, they’ve quietly enrolled more and more international students—who, like at Purdue, pay even more tuition than American out-of-staters. The percentage of out-of-state and international enrollment grew to 25 percent of last year’s freshman class.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the percentage of in-state residents that make up the freshman class has declined by 8 percent in the past ten years. During the same time period, the percentage of the class made up by international students has jumped from less than 2 percent to 9.6 percent, according to a report produced by the university’s Committee for Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid.

In Washington State, the perception that in-state students have lost their admissions edge to out-of-state and international students became so intense that the legislature passed a bill in 2011 requiring that a minimum of 4,000 Washington residents be admitted in each freshman class. This spring, another bill was proposed that would further raise tuition for international students by 20 percent, with the increased revenue going to the general fund for higher education in the state. The University of Washington protested, saying the increase would drive away international students, and the measure didn’t pass.

Marguerite Roza, who studies the financing of public higher education at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, analyzed the admissions data for the University of Washington, and found that in 2011—prior to the passage of the law requiring in-state quotas—Washingtonians did in fact have to give way to nonresidents. Her study only looked at out-of-state students compared to in-state students, because international students’ admissions profiles are too dissimilar to be compared. But the boom in international students was certainly relevant to her findings, she said, and the fact that they are not in the same admissions pool is significant. “I think the universities see the international students as a source of revenue that won’t affect their [U.S. News & World Report] rankings,” she said. After all, competition for out-of-state U.S. students can drive down a school’s selectivity, average SAT scores, and other measures that are important to the rankings, but international student applications often buoy a school’s selectivity, and those students who are admitted without SAT scores aren’t factored into U.S. News & World Report calculations.

The search for out-of-state tuition dollars has been going on for a long time, but it was somewhat kept in check by a limited pool of students, and the possible loss of prestige from lowering standards. But a limitless supply of international students changes the game quite a bit, Roza said. “People say, ‘Oh well, they’re supporting our kids,’” she said, referring to the financial benefits of having out-of-state and international students. “But they aren’t supporting our kids if our kids aren’t getting in.”

The fact that the international admissions process is so different from the domestic one has also led to questions about how to ensure the integrity of the process, not to mention the quality of the students, especially since foreign recruiting has become big business in China. Officials at Purdue say they don’t recruit in China, and don’t plan to, but the fact is they don’t have to.

Since 2006, Purdue has received a seemingly endless supply of applications from well-qualified, well-financed students from China. As a result, Purdue only accepts 40 percent of international applicants—a much lower rate of acceptance than for Indiana residents or U.S. nonresidents, and on paper the international applicants often have a higher academic profile than other applicant pools. Michael Brzezinski, Purdue’s dean of international programs, argues that concerns over international students’ quality are overblown. “Our international students have better first-year retention rates and graduation rates than the rest of the student body,” he said. “They are doing quite well here.”

Luodan Li
Lost in translation: Luodan Li, a Purdue undergraduate from Shanghai, started a Chinese-language campus magazine, Voice, to help Chinese students integrate with their American peers.

That said, directly comparing international and American students can be tricky. For one, the university doesn’t require the SAT or ACT for international admissions. And for another, international students’ applications arrive at the university’s doorstep primarily via for-profit agencies, which, in their most benign form, are like expensive and very attentive guidance counselors. But they range dramatically in their scrupulousness. Recent reports have alleged that agencies in China are falsifying information, inventing student bios, writing student essays, and manipulating transcripts. After all, a good portion of their payment depends on whether their customer is accepted. For admissions committees at U.S. institutions, deciphering whether a prospective international student is qualified, or more qualified than an in-state student, is therefore more difficult than it might seem.

“It’s a classic scenario of a developing market,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about the use of agencies for recruiting student abroad. “The borders are not well determined.” Hawkins’s organization recently released a report recommending best practices for recruiting abroad, a scene that he has characterized as a “gold rush.” The recommendations call for strict guidelines to ensure transparency and institutional accountability in the use of paid agents. But even for universities that don’t pay agents to recruit abroad, gray areas remain in the relationship, Hawkins said, since the university is largely dependent on their services for international applications.

While Chinese students have long performed quite well at the graduate level, there are also concerns that the students in the new wave of Chinese undergraduates are having special difficulties. Not only are they younger, but as undergraduates they face different expectations than do graduate students to engage in classroom discussions and group work, participate in extracurricular activities, and generally contribute to a vibrant, cross-cultural campus vibe that they were ostensibly brought to the university to help create. Unlike graduate-level math, science, or engineering courses, which used to account for the majority of Chinese student enrollment, undergraduate degree programs require students to take a breadth of humanities and social studies classes that often push the limits of their English-language abilities.

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