The Trouble with Going Global

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

American universities are eagerly recruiting foreign students and setting up outposts overseas. What's wrong with the new expansionism.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Just as American businesses and banks have looked overseas for new markets, so our universities are globalizing in a quest for revenue and growth. The numbers behind this new internationalism are impressive. Every year more and more overseas students apply to American campuses: last year, 103,260 came from India, 98,235 from China, even 11,581 from Nepal, according to the Institute of International Education. In a complementary move, American colleges are extending their range by establishing branch campuses abroad, like Carnegie Mellon in Qatar and the University of Nevada in Singapore. At last count, 38 American schools had 65 branches in 34 countries, all mandated to grant the home institution's degree.

This sounds exhilarating, very 21st century. International engagement, with its interplay of people and ideas, has unquestionable benefits. Yet these globalized ventures are certain to have an impact on education at home.

The first American educational outposts were organized as missionary colleges--like American University of Beirut, founded in 1866 as Syrian Protestant College. While they often earned reputations as the best in the region, the students were sometimes drawn to nationalist causes, frightening the local elites. Today's efforts are different. Now host countries extend the invitations themselves. China has solicited U.S. liaison programs even before campuses are built. But there remains the question of whether this new internationalism actually represents colonialism in a softer guise. Often these efforts seem intended mostly to add glamour to a school's brand; the locals can seem beside the point. In this new form, a student from, say, Switzerland will study at an American-sponsored program in Shanghai.

What is driving the new expansionism? In part, these new ventures recall the advice the Red Queen gave to Lewis Carroll's Alice: "It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place." Schools are clearly looking for new ways to grow. Yet if growth were the sole aim, colleges could establish two-year branches on their campuses or nearby, since that's where the real educational need is. The problem is that there's not much prestige in founding a community college. Colleges not quite in the top tier are looking for ways to seem distinctive. So Michigan State sets out for Dubai and Florida State for Panama. Globalization is one of the mantras of the moment; press releases about making an imprint in South Korea or India have an undeniable cachet--not to mention comfort-class visits for university administrators and photo-ops with heads of state.

On the flip side, there are obvious benefits to importing scholars. The influx of foreign students creates a bright blip in our otherwise dismal balance of payments. In 2008, the most recent year for figures, international students spent $18 billion on American education. Many of these visitors come from well-off families who can write full-tuition checks more easily than many of their American counterparts. For others, the fees will be paid by their governments; China and Saudi Arabia, for example, have a lot of dollars piled up in their treasuries.

Foreign students usually come for graduate degrees, chiefly in the sciences and engineering--subjects that attract fewer homegrown Americans. Professors get career points for teaching advanced seminars, so they welcome overseas applicants to fill up what would be empty seats, as well as serve as assistants in labs, which bring in grants. At last count, in 2008, "nonresident aliens" accounted for more than half the Ph.D.s awarded in mathematics, and 60 percent in engineering. More than a few graduate programs can thank their international scholars for their solvency, if not their continued existence. …