Tactics US colleges use to lure foreign students questioned

An increasingly aggressive foreign student recruitment effort by colleges around the country is raising new questions about the ethics and adequacy of the methods involved and about just how prepared campuses are for major increases in their foreign student populations.

The increase in the number of foreign students has been dramatic in recent years. There are currently an estimated 300,000 foreigners -- a 70 percent jump just in the last four years -- studying in US institutions of higher education.

Meanwhile, all predictions point to a continuing upward trend. Many institutions, which once opened their doors to students from other nations only out of a sense of duty to help educate future foreign leaders or to enrich the cultural experience of American students, have a new dollar- and-cents interest as the enrollment decline starts to take hold at the college level.

While much of the recruiting that goes on is of professional caliber, some smaller institutions have leaned hard on third- party recruiters -- particularly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East -- who work on a commission basis and often blatantly deceive students as to the worth of their academic credentials and the availability of courses and services to meet their needs in the United States.

By now, virtually every college admissions officer has heard the horror stories of students handed immigration forms already signed by the college before any check of student qualifications, of students enrolled in colleges that do not offer the courses they want, and of students told they have been accepted by Podunk "U" but can easily transfer in a year or two to Harvard or Yale.

Awareness of these problems has brought a reduction -- but not an elimination -- of the problem. Most experts agree that unethical recruitment practices are virtually impossible to regulate and will continue as long as some colleges condone them.

The growing concern on the part of the many colleges and universities is that the abuses could trigger a backlash of protest from foreign governments which could damage the credibility of all US colleges and universities.

Accordingly, the reputable Institute of International Education, which takes a strong interest in the issue, has begun to launch experimental traveling tours of college recruiters in Southeast Asia and Mexico. The aim is to combine their own recruitment efforts with specific advice to education officials in the countries concerned on what kinds of institutions and recruitment methods to be particularly wary of and why.

Also, last year some 40 college presidents, deans, and admissions officers gathered for a conference on overseas recruitment abuses at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread conference center in Wisconsin. They agreed not only on a code of ethics but on a specific list of disreputable practices worthy of public censure.

"There are schools which just want bodies, but I think most want to do the right thing and that a lot of the problem is naivete," observes Mary Ann Spreckelmeyer, a Wingspread participant and head of student support services for the US International Communications Agency (USICA).

While not all colleges can afford to send their own recruiters overseas, experts agree that most could do more to see that potential students abroad get more accurate information about what is in store for them in this country -- in costs, services, and adjustment help. For example, some colleges send their catalogs directly to USICA libraries in foreign countries. Recruitment experts say brief informational leaflets tailored to typical foreign student questions may sometimes do the job better.

In addition, some institutions need to do a much more careful evaluation of academic credentials and mastery of English to be sure each student is one who they want and can fully serve. This question of campus readiness is a key focus of an American Council on Education study currently under way on the impact of the rising numbers of foreign students in this country. The blue-ribbon committee of administrators, headed by American University president Richard Berendzen, expects to develop recommendations by fall on how institutions can better prepare for and benefit from the increase.

"We're trying to anticipate and counsel awareness of potential problems," explains president Berendzen. "i personally think the greatest single stumbling block, if there is one, is [the foreign student's] facility with the language."

One added problem on many campuses as more students from oil-producing countries, particularly Iran, have arrived has been a community backlash against foreign student demonstrations, cliquishness, and any showy signs of student affluence. Colleges, too, fret about becoming too financially dependent on students from any one country and worry that having too many foreign students could distort the nature and purpose of their institutions.

Many educators argue that each college has a perfect right to decide just what kind of overseas mix it wants. At Wooster College in Ohio, for instance, a small school that is considered to have one of the most effective and professional overseas recruiting operations, campus policy is to have no more than 25 students from any one country. Wooster coordinator of international admissions Karen Lowe-Raftus says any college taking on foreign students must also make a commitment to serving them well. Her college offers no remedial English training, but foreign students are given an orientation program, counseling, and, if they wish, are assigned a "host family" in the community.

Cornell College in Iowa has its own English-as-a-second-language program. Cornell's dean of international education, Dr. John Bury, says he thinks slow growth of his institution's foreign student population and an addition to normal enrollment and income has much to do with community acceptance of the change. Campuses facing the most trouble, he says, are usually those that go from "nothing to something overnight" in foreign student population and are recruiting primarily to fill classrooms and college coffers.

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