Blog: The Educated Reporter

Higher Ed: Are Foreign Students More Valuable to U.S. Universities?

Fiscally challenged public universities are relying on international students — who pay significantly higher tuition than their in-state classmates — to boost the bottom line, a move that’s potentially at odds with the underlying mission of higher education.

The Los Angeles Times wrote about the dilemma recently, highlighting the popularity of California’s university system among students from overseas. And now the New York Times reports that the University of Washington is profiting from an influx of international students who pay close to $30,000 annually — three times what it would cost for an in-state student to attend.

There are many ways to read these stories. One take is that hard-working American students are seeing their college dreams – and seats — usurped by foreigners. A more positive view might be that the extra tuition collected from wealthy foreigners supports scholarships for low-income American students, who might otherwise not be able to attend. That is indeed the case at the University of Washington, according to the New York Times‘ reporting.
But the stories also raise important questions about what the trend might mean in the long term for the nation’s colleges and universities. How are international students, who often require specialized instruction to help them acclimate, influencing the campus environment? Does a more globally diverse campus suggest American students might ultimately be better prepared for global competition?

The University of Washington’s increase in foreign students doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone. There was a mistaken perception among at least some of the in-state students – the New York Times interviewed 36 of them – that international students now make up at least half of their class. (In reality, nearly two-thirds of this year’s freshmen are from Washington.)

That perception was strong enough for Farheen Siddiqui, a freshman at the university who comes from south of Seattle, to say she felt like a minority among her classmates. She told the New York Times that “morally, I feel the university should accept in-state students first, then other American students, then international students.”

The idea that a moral obligation is at stake is an interesting one. Public universities have long positioned themselves as engines of the local economy, pledging to turn out graduates who ideally become productive members of society. Communities want, and need, more from post-secondary students than just their relatively short-term contribution of tuition dollars. It would be interesting to revisit the University of Washington in four years, and to ask the international students in the class of 2016 about their post-graduation plans.

There is an underlying reason why high-paying foreign students are in such demand: brutal budget cuts. This is not a dilemma unique to California or Washington. Flagship universities in other states (including Colorado, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) are paying recruiters to seek out higher-paying international students.
Will families, educators or lawmakers be concerned by increases in international student enrollment and push for more state funding for higher education? Even if they push, would it make a difference? In the long run, could the nation’s public colleges and universities benefit from a trend toward more international students, if it might also be a way to subsidize socioeconomic diversity, as well?


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