Studying abroad: another field where East, West compete

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In many Latin American countries, upper-level government jobs are held by officials who were educated in the United States. Entry- and lower-level management positions tend to be filled by those educated in Soviet-bloc countries - and their numbers are growing at a far faster clip.

One reason: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe offer full five- to seven-year scholarships on a generous basis to students in developing countries. The US offers far less financial help on a more selective basis and with tighter time restrictions. Latin Americans on Soviet-bloc scholarships currently outnumber those on US government scholarships by about 18 to 1. In Africa, the ratio is an even more striking 40 to 1 in favor of the Communist bloc.

''We're definitely out-scholarshiped,'' confirms David Larsen of the International Institute of Education (IIE), the largest US educational exchange agency.

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Studying in a particular country is, of course, no guarantee that a student will be won over by the merits of its particular political system. A senior African diplomat once remarked that if developing countries wanted students to return home as committed communists, they sent them to France, but if they wanted confirmed capitalists, they shipped them off to Moscow.

But those who closely monitor foreign-student patterns in this country see the scholarship imbalance as one more reason US colleges and universities and, indeed, the nation as a whole must begin to develop a well-thought-out policy regarding the increasing number of foreign students arriving on US shores.

By the IIE's last count a year ago, there were 326,299 foreign students in US colleges and universities. Most are from developing countries. Iran, Taiwan, and Nigeria head the list. And the total number of foreign students is expected to triple within the next decade or so.

''Absence of Decision,'' a recent report issued by the IIE, turns the spotlight on many existing policy gaps. Researchers found that the leaders of few colleges have thought through such basic questions as how many foreign students they would continue to welcome (though most felt a proportion higher than 50 percent would be undesirable), why they really want them to come, and whether or not the college is equipped to offer the visitors enough help in and outside the classroom to ensure a positive experience.

''Many colleges treat foreign students just as if they were Americans,'' notes Dr. Larsen, who directs the IIE's educational associate program and headed up a recent IIE regional seminar here for educators, which underscored many of the points raised in ''Absence of Decision.''

''We have to realize that if we're going to invite people to come and take their money, we're obliged to give them more than a number of credits and a diploma,'' continues Larsen, who says he thinks foreign students deserve much more access to travel and hospitality in American homes than many now get. ''These are young and impressionable people who can feel very lonesome. But if they're not provided with opportunities to interact with Americans, they probably won't.''

Certainly some foreign students - particularly Iranians during the American hostage crisis and Saudi Arabians when they have flaunted their cash - have felt the sting of public criticism from some Americans in whose communities they live. Often the more students from the same country, the more the friction. Neighbors have sometimes accused the students of creating ghettos and adding an extra burden to police and school services.

This kind of geographic imbalance is easy to come by. A recent graduate may spread the word at home about ''his'' school or, if he moves into a responsible government position, may ask his alma mater to take 100 or 200 of his nation's best students. Such student concentrations are easier to administer for the foreign government and are seen as a convenient way for students to keep their cultural identity intact. For many colleges, eager to fill classrooms and dormitory beds, such offers can be hard to refuse.

But the dangers have been so well publicized in recent years that many colleges and government education ministries are beginning to grow more cautious. Indeed, Ross Peacock, coordinator of international admissions for Ohio's Denison University, which wants to increase its foreign-student population, says his only advice from Denison's few dozen current foreign students is to be sure to recruit a well-balanced global mix.

Larsen views the failure of some campuses to come to grips with that issue as one more sign that colleges can no longer afford the luxury of no policy when it comes to foreign students.

''It's the small private school which lacks a policy that I worry most about, '' he explains. ''All it would take is another Iranian student crisis to close the door to foreign students.''

US graduate schools should also reconsider their foreign-student admission policies in the light of America's long-range interests and stepped-up Soviet-bloc competition for students, says David Mize, vice-president of America-Mideast Educational & Training Services.

While foreign students in some areas such as engineering are eagerly embraced as a way of keeping such departments operating until American enrollment steps up, many foreign students in other graduate areas where space is tight are effectively shut out, according to Mr. Mize. A Mideastern student, for instance, finds it almost impossible to get into a top American medical or business school and tough to even get into those of lesser rank.

Many who would study business have had undergraduate courses in the same field - something US business schools often frown upon - and do not fare as well as Americans on entrance exams. Yet Mize points out that, in time, many of these same graduate students, readily offered scholarships by Soviet-bloc countries, will be managing billions of dollars and looking for a good place to invest it.

''It really comes down to the philosophical issue of whether America is going to be used as a training ground or not,'' Mize says. ''I don't think it's an unwillingness as much as it is an inability to respond. It must be corrected or we will suffer.''

The current foreign-student population here pumps an estimated $2 billion-plus a year into the economy for everything from travel to room and board. The overwhelming majority are self-sponsored, relying on the financial help of families and friends.

''Fewer and fewer foreign students in the US are on any form of scholarship, '' notes Dan Heyduk, the IIE area director for South America. ''We're serving a narrower and narrower elite.''

Yet all foreign students in this country, just as their US counterparts, are subsidized to some degree by taxpayers and college donors. Public university officials constantly fret that any hike in tuition to cost or above for foreign students will lose them both students and critical state aid. Barbara Rolland, adviser to the 150 foreign students at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire , says her administration, for instance, is weighing just how to approach the Legislature in asking that summer tuition charges for foreigners be lowered to those a state resident would pay.

''These foreign students can't afford to go home, but they can't afford to take courses, either - we have a real selling job to do,'' she says.

The IIE, which will embark next on a study of the controversial issue of foreign-student costs vs. benefits, found in its policy report that many colleges cite lofty humanitarian goals such as improved world understanding as reasons to open the door wide to foreign students. Yet, noting a difference between rhetoric and scrutiny on that point, the report goes on to assert that many colleges ''clearly'' admit students for economic reasons, though most deny it.

''I'm not sure it's as good for foreign students to come here as we think it is,'' suggests IIE's Larsen in making a pitch to send more US students abroad as an alternative. By current estimates foreign students here outnumber those studying overseas by 6 to 1.

Most who do go overseas head for Europe. The IIE would like to see more of them head for developing countries. But basically it would just welcome an increase in the number of those studying abroad. Larsen suggests more Americans should consider studying abroad for a year as undergraduates ''before they get so narrowly focused that they never get out of the library.'' Some institutions have wrestled with the relative merits and dollars involved in bringing in foreign students vs. sending more of their own US students abroad and have decided the latter can be a cheaper, more effective way of accomplishing the same goal. Wisconsin's Carroll College, which has 12 foreigners in a student body of 1,100, for instance, recently made a conscious choice to step up study-abroad opportunities for its own students on just that basis, according to dean of admissions Frank Hetherington.

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