A record number of foreign students, 890,000 and climbing, are enrolled in American universities. A third of them are from China. Their high tuitions might be a godsend for universities facing slashed state budget cuts. After all, in 2014 foreign students contributed $27 billion to the U.S. economy. Plus they provide a veneer of diversity every college covets.
But their presence on campus has stoked a backlash, as middle-class American students are increasingly crowded out of the admissions process. Campus life has also been negatively affected, as these students cluster themselves off from the rest of their classmates.
Take the University of California, which saw the number of its non-resident and foreign students at campuses rise by 33 percent to 32,000 between 2009 and 2012. Meanwhile, in-state student enrollment fell by 1.3 percent to 197,000. The UC schools now receive more revenue from student tuition – non-resident students fork over $35,000, while resident students pay just over $12,000 – than from the state.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the number of in-state freshmen fell by eight percent between 2003 and 2013, while international student enrollment jumped from two to nine percent.
The same goes for Washington State, where the perception that international students were displacing in-state students was so strong that the legislature passed a bill reserving two-thirds of slots in each freshman class for residents.
This past spring, amid protests from residents, the UC system decided to cap the percentage of out-of-state and foreign students at UCLA and UC Berkeley at the current 22 percent. (But it would still not raise in-state students enrollment until it received additional state funding.)
University administrators insist that the influx of the world’s smartest kids can only be good for colleges. But it’s not clear that admissions are based solely on merit to admit the best students in a fiercely competitive, unregulated market. From private schools to state universities to community colleges, every admissions office is tripping over itself to attract foreign students. Remember that American colleges are not just competing with one another but also against institutions in the U.K., Canada and Australia.
Then there are the reports of abuse in China with commission-based recruitment agents abetting applicants who falsify transcripts and submit essays they didn’t write. A few schools have scrapped the SAT requirement for international students, creating a two-tiered set of admission standards. Many foreign students can even be admitted conditionally, which means they can live on campus and improve their English proficiency before taking freshman classes.
Meanwhile, faculty members across the country are struggling to recalibrate the classroom – their teaching methods, grading standards, and so forth – to accommodate international students whose poor English skills all but guarantees them a low class participation grade. Sure, writing a coherent essay with correct English grammar is hardly a challenge reserved for Chinese 18-year-olds. But when incoming students need headsets with translation to attend freshman orientation, it reflects poorly on schools’ admissions policies.
Worse, language and cultural barriers lead to self-segregation. Instead of attending sports events or extra-curricular clubs on campus, Chinese students tend to mingle amongst themselves, registering for the same classes and renting off-campus apartments together. Some complain they are not getting the English-speaking learning environment they paid for.
When 40 percent of international students report that they don’t have any close American friends, it’s clear that colleges have failed in “globalizing” their campuses.
How bad is the backlash? From UCLA to Ohio State to Indiana, racist Twitter feeds and YouTube videos have surfaced. At Michigan State, whose Chinese student population has ballooned tenfold over the past decade, luxury cars belonging to Chinese students were vandalized with graffiti reading, “Go back home.” A YouTube video of a UCLA female student mocking her Chinese classmates talking too loud on their cell phones went viral a few years back and eventually led to her dropping out of college.
Such tensions will only grow worse as the number of foreign students rises.
There are signs that college administrators have begun to wake up to this culture clash. The University of Delaware began a mentorship program easing Chinese students’ transition into campus. It also holds workshops for faculty members who have Chinese students. Michigan State began programs promoting better understanding of Chinese culture.
Some schools are revising their admissions process, too. For example, the University of Denver raised its English language proficiency by changing admissions requirements and curriculum all the while keeping up the number of foreign students it admitted. At the University of Virginia, alumni and students interview international applicants either in person or via Skype to assess their qualifications.
But international students will continue to pour in and snap up spots that in previous generations might have gone to a lower-income in-state student. Diversity should obviously be embraced and budget shortfalls are no minor issue. But American colleges should not put profits ahead of the pursuit of an active and enriching student life on campus.