Didactic Deceit

In April 2009, Columbia University’s Task Force on Undergraduate Education released “An Agenda for the Future,” a cheery strategic document, which, translated into two words, read: excelsior, Columbia! On pages 16 and 17, the report rejoices in and urges forward the internationalization of Columbia ­– not just the establishment of foreign outposts vis-à-vis Global Centers and the development of the Global Core credit distribution requirement for undergraduates, but also the increase in global applicants. Columbia is not alone: Nationally, the class of 2012 saw an eight percent rise in international students compared to the previous year. Part of that is a natural push – in February 2011, Grinnell College told the New York Times that almost one in 10 of its applicants that year were Chinese international students. But universities encourage the trend as well, stumping for a more international student body; the international population of the University of Southern California hit 22 percent with the entrance of the class of 2012, and Harvard boosted its international population to 12 percent last year. Similarly, as the released report states, Columbia wishes to bolster its own number of international students.

The untrammeled embrace of globalization is born of twin optimistic impulses (both explicitly present in Columbia’s report). On the presumptuous and self-congratulatory end, American universities ostensibly believe in their ability to change the world by enlightening the benighted children of dictatorial and underdeveloped nations. On the domestic sales call, universities would have Americans believe that the rise in internationals adds some intangible benefit to the classroom that will give students an edge and a new perspective in a rapidly interconnected world – will make them global citizens. But as with most trends global, behind the vague positivism is a depressing truth. The international trend in American education has increasingly become a bane to the rest of the globe – an agent of elite entrenchment and brain drain, an untenable buoy to America’s lilting system of higher education funding, and a disincentive for educational development in the developing world.

Universities are businesses. They are special businesses with unique concerns and philosophies, but they are not unthinking, idealistic actors. One cannot believe that vague promises of benefit to students and foreign nations alone would drive universities to bring in more foreigners, especially a nation in economic slump preaches foremost domestic job protection and competitiveness. And it is true; universities do appear to want foreign students enrolled for practical and disconcerting reasons: they want an international subsidy for our domestic educational model.

The tactic is not explicit, but it is clear. The same New York Times article on Grinnell found that “an applicant from China or another country could have an edge if he or she can pay full tuition.” Bradshaw College Consulting, an international college admissions aid firm, recognizes the same trend nationwide, adding that international students drive up test scores averages (due to preparatory education, not native intelligence) and the appeal of a university domestically as well. It’s not rapacious – Grinnell still looks for merit – but the fact that foreign tuition money (only six schools offer high quality financial aid to internationals as of the writing of this article) has become a factor in considering applications and shaping classes is disconcerting.

Universities wish to make this seem like a brief, necessary evil – Columbia’s report and current line voice the University’s desire to raise funds to provide domestic-comparable financial aid to internationals. But it hasn’t happened yet, and the national trends are grim. In 2000, the Journal of Instructional Psychology published figures claiming that, of all international students in America, only 67.9 percent were paying their expenses from personal resources, while the rest could find donors, scholarships and aid. By the time The Institute for International Education compiled its 2005 Open Doors report, 80.9 percent of international students were paying their expenses out of familial pocket – and that was still before the contractions in funding and altruism that would hit three years later. As American education becomes more expensive and high levels of domestic financial aid and merit in the selection process become sacred cows, it grows harder and harder not to accept the idea that there is a willing pool of subsidy providers ready to flood in from the increasingly wealthy, underserviced developing world. Perhaps administrators believe they can eventually find aid for internationals, but the numeric trends are discouraging, and what that says about the demographics of international students is even more depressing.

Developed, robust nations can send a diverse crowd to American schools, but they are not the source of the jump in international numbers. For the class of 2012, the nations that saw the highest increase in their share of the applicant pool were Vietnam, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, and China, while developed nations saw a decrease in attendance, most marked in Japan. A 2006 study in Population, Space and Place proves the obvious: this means a rise in the elite population of foreign students in America. Even in more developed nations, like South Korea, the America-bound student population is mostly the spawn of elites who can send their students to schools like Daewom, which offers intensive courses in SAT-taking, helping to artificially increase American universities’ test score rankings while providing a cash influx. These ascendant nations are those, generally speaking, with more concentrated wealth, less wealth overall, and not inconsiderable levels of corruption and elitism. Given the demographic shifts in the American international student population and the limited ability to pay full American-level tuition, the numbers and trends for most colleges are skewing towards a limited and elite stratum of international students.

Certain colleges have made nods toward opening up American education to a more diverse international population – consider the use of satellite campuses in other nations to extend access. However, Stephen Heyneman, a professor of international education policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, complicates this model, noting that the risk of failure in expanding overseas scares many top colleges (who fear for damage to their brand) away from the venture. Additionally, a number of national restrictions, especially in elite-dominated countries, mean that whatever American schools do provide there is mainly trade/technical education, divorced of the threatening analytic and introspective elements that help to define the American university as something more and more nationally beneficial than a technical school. For now, it’s only those able to come to America who can reap the full benefit – in quality of education and in personal and professional prestige – of high-level American degrees.

For those lucky few non-elite who do come from developing nations to America, the playing field is uneven – they are on average more encumbered with debt and obligation than their elite peers and thus more likely to encounter academic difficulties. They are also far more likely to stay in America. This was one of the most surprising findings of the 2006 Population, Space and Place study: foreign elites who come to America have little incentive to stay here, as patronage networks back home, intense wealth disparity, and increasing access to well-paying jobs and high-quality goods for the few in the limited-globalized world make life back home more attractive. Yet for the non-elite, job prospects and potential income in America are far more attractive and offer a higher chance to provide for one’s family via remittances.

Populist spooks in the wake of the financial crisis are not helping these trends. In May 2011, President Barack Obama made a speech on immigration. Responding to fearful rhetoric, the president intimated that it is not America’s intent to train its competitors via American education – the country is not in the business of helping to foster jobs and growth in foreign, competitor nations during a time of economic downturn and national job loss. So the Obama administration has decided to increase the number of H-1B visas for skilled international college graduates, making it easier for them to stay in the nation (and American tax law, notes David North of the US Center for Immigration Studies, now gives an effective 7.65 percent discount for foreign students becoming domestic workers). From populism and job creation rhetoric comes the ease and incentive for the acceleration of brain drain from the lowest levels of the least developed and most deserving countries in the world – the theft of the underrepresented non-elite’s greatest minds.

Those who recognize these trends try to be optimistic. Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping The World, believes that even if it is mainly elites who come to American universities and return home, American educators can still influence elites to the benefit of their own nations. Unfortunately, the most common programs for international students are business, engineering, mathematics and computer science. Only 8 percent of the international population, according to a June 2000 article in the Journal of Instructional Psychology, has traditionally studied physical and life sciences and the social sciences, combined. This focus on pre-professional programs by foreign elites often means that it is easy for them (on an institutional and personal level) to circumvent instruction in citizenship. Some of the elite seem fostered to focus on success over national awareness and citizenship; Lee Won-hee, founder of Daewom, publicly frets that his school has succeeded in making a generation of high-performing Koreans with no investment in citizenship or public engagement.

Beyond the entrenchment of elites in elite-dominated nations and the draining off of talent from the most needy of populations, the current system of international student education in America perpetuates educational and economic stagnation in developing countries. In another example from Kenya, the nation has developed its secondary education to the point where an exceptional number of its youths are graduating with the credentials to pursue a college education. The nation has only developed enough higher education institutions to accommodate a small fraction of those graduates. Part of this is corruption and traction on the government’s side, but part is a recognition that the elite can just find their education elsewhere. To break to an anecdote, while in Nairobi, Kenya, a few months ago, I chanced to speak to a Kenyan judge who described the situation as such: the ability of Kenya’s poorest to mobilize and push for changes in the government is limited, and the decreased salience of such issues to the nation’s elite, who can buy a water tank when water mains fail, a generator when the electrical grid fails, or an American education when Kenyan higher education fails, means that the elements of Kenyan society with the money and power to rectify the nation’s problems of higher education have no incentives to do so.

And as local education stagnates, the nation appears wealthier. The high number of non-elites from developing nations working in the developed world has led to massive influxes of remittances to poor families, which create the short-term illusion of increasing prosperity that can mollify discontent among the larger population with elite-dominated governments. But remittances are highly dependent upon the health of foreign, developed nations, making (especially during recessions) the poor in developing nations far more vulnerable to sudden income fluxes, while the wealthy remain stable and grow relatively more powerful. The holistic nation appears to weather the financial storm better than the developed world does, with the damages of the higher-education-fueled remittance culture on the world’s poor well hidden.

This amounts to a multi-tiered and self-fulfilling problem: funding issues in American education, the perpetuation of elite control in the developing world, and the perpetuation of poor developing nation infrastructure and funding mechanisms to ensure that both non-elites and elites return in equal stride. Viewing American economics in a vacuum from the global jobs and markets equation helps to exacerbate all of this. A number of partial solutions can be offered: conditionality in grants and aid to international students stipulating they return to their nations, measures to limit the attractiveness of damaging remittance cultures, required courses for the children of elites in American institutions, or perhaps a degree of economic international affirmative action. But closing the total gaps by helping to develop a fair infrastructure in other nations and equitable aid for international students in America is part of a larger, highly intractable, and incredibly depressing problem, part of a mess of education financing and non-governmental organization aid and dependency problems that none of these individual measures can address. The problem can be easily identified, but the solution requires a level of global institutional overhaul that is far too daunting for this article, or for most administrators and educators to address with a straight face.

While enthusiasm for international education is understandable, we must recognize that the concepts of global citizenship and empowerment via American education are, if admirable (and good for business), foundationally problematic. Administrators have good intentions – they make honest efforts to find aid, and they believe in diversity. But for now, the US educational model is, in strange and subtle ways, perpetuating elitism and poverty dynamics by waging an anti-democratic, anti-development campaign in the developing world. We as students and educators, in order to stave off long-term problems for education at home and abroad, cannot fear acknowledging the chronic, ugly truths of our system – either to cower in recognition or, hopefully, through recognition, to correct them.