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

Jian Xueqin, the director of Peking University High School’s International Division, summarized the issues that this new wave has brought to campuses in an online column. “I … can’t ignore the stories I’ve heard from colleagues and former students about how Chinese students behave on American campuses,” he wrote. “I’ve heard complaints that Chinese students segregate themselves, and only speak Mandarin. They breeze through the math and science courses, but reading and writing in English frustrate them. Plagiarism and disciplinary violations are rife. Americans, historically accustomed to the stereotypically polite and diligent Chinese student, become overwhelmed when confronted with this new crop.” He worries that the stage is being set for a backlash.

And the dissatisfaction can go both ways, with many Chinese students reporting a general impression that Americans have no interest in learning anything about Chinese culture or attempting to understand them. Emil Cheung, who is from Hong Kong and graduated from Purdue in May, pointed to language as a major barrier for engagement, but also said that both Chinese and American students had a notable lack of interest in crossing the cultural divide. Despite his interest in basketball, Emil said he didn’t manage to make any real American friends. One of the main benefits of attending Purdue, he said, was getting to interact with Chinese students from different regions of China and “learning to speak better Chinese.” In this respect, too, the size of Chinese student populations on large campuses is less than ideal, creating an environment that can allow students to isolate themselves in their own community.

Intent on bridging this cultural divide, Luodan, the Purdue student from Shanghai, has started a magazine for Chinese students to help them integrate on campus. (The latest issue contains a breakdown of the Greek system for international students.) While the magazine is currently mostly in Chinese, Luodan plans to print more English stories and give American students insight into the Chinese community as well. Luodan’s magazine also sends out daily news roundups via text message to Chinese students, helping educate the Chinese student community about things like student senate elections.

Students like Luodan are one of the reasons American universities stand to gain from admitting more international students. He did well in class, provided a valuable addition to Purdue’s undergraduate life, and left a positive mark on the university. And, of course, during his time as an undergraduate his parents infused almost $120,000 in tuition into Purdue’s coffers—and that’s not including room and board and cost of living for four years. Luodan and his family, and the thousands of other Chinese students who have come before and after him these past few years, have arguably helped to keep the doors open at Purdue during tough economic times. This spring, Purdue announced that it would freeze tuition for all students for two years, marking the first time the college has not raised tuition since 1976.

But that doesn’t mean we should disregard all the issues that accompany a historic shift in the numbers and role of international students on American campuses. When viewed through a wider lens it’s impossible to ignore such challenges as the unsavory practices of the international admissions agencies, the poor integration of many international students on campuses, and the displacement of in-state students. And while universities may have liberated themselves somewhat from the fickle purse strings of state legislatures, they have also exposed themselves to the vagaries of foreign governments and immigration regimes. Even if the influx of Chinese students has saved public universities in the short term, a system that relies so heavily on international tuition dollars seems to strike at the core of the universities’ missions to serve the states that have supported them for so many decades. It raises the specter of a downward spiral of state disinvestment and decreasing public support for universities, adding grease to the slippery slope of increasing privatization.

Tim Sands, Purdue’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the “land-grant culture” at Purdue, serving the needs of the state as a public institution, was still very important to the university and aligned with its global aspirations, but he also alluded to the thorny discussions the university is having about the direction in which it’s headed. “There’s no question that as your revenue sources change, your stakeholders change as well,” he said.

Calls to recalibrate the enrollment strategy have already begun in states like Washington and California, and while the reactions elsewhere have been more muted, that may change as the budgetary problems in the state legislatures become less dire. Advocating for fewer international students may seem shortsighted or populist to some, but the eagerness of universities to cash in on the global value of American higher education without weighing the consequences seems equally shortsighted, ignoring the long-standing bargain inherent in public education.

If public universities are going to continue to enroll the increasing numbers of students from around the world who are willing to pay top dollar for an American degree, they would do well to remember what is bringing those students here in the first place: widely respected, quality institutions. By improving and regulating the international recruiting and admissions process, expanding enrollment rather than displacing in-state residents, and taking on smaller numbers of international students from a more diverse pool of countries, universities would help to ensure that U.S. higher education remains the envy of the world.


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