The expanding role of American colleges and universities in educating the world and making friends for the United States abroad should be both appreciated and safeguarded. Probably the most valuable contribution the US makes to the rest of the world does not come in the form of foreign or military assistance or foreign investment but in the training of foreign students.
The desire for an American education is reflected in the dramatic growth in numbers of foreign students in the US. The annual census of foreign students conducted by the Institute of International Education counted 311,882 foreign students in 1981-82, 8.9 percent greater than in 1980; twice as large as in 1975 ; and 10 times greater than in 1954.
The vast majority of foreign students are from poor countries. Most are studying subjects like business, science, and engineering directly related to the development of their countries. During the era of empires, students from the colonies studied in colonizing countries, but in recent times the US has become the magnet for students unable to obtain the education they desire in their homeland institutions.
The overwhelming majority of students do not come here as beneficiaries of American aid or US charities; they pay their own way. Two-thirds are financed primarily by personal and family resources and another 15 percent by their home governments or foreign private sources. Moreover, many US institutions consider them a valuable asset, since their numbers are increasing just as enrollments of American students are expected to drop dramatically.
Although most students come already funded, financial support directed at carefully targeted groups of students needs to be sustained and augmented. Students who can become important leaders in their countries but who lack other sources of support should continue receiving aid from American universities, foundations, corporations, and government agencies - particularly the International Communication Agency and the Agency for International Development.
The level of US government funding is minuscule (one-tenth) compared to what is provided by the Soviet Union, reflecting the latter's recognition of the political returns. Very few students are prepared to study in the Soviet Union if they have funds to study in the West, but the Soviet government has steadily expanded the size of the foreign student population in the USSR by increasing the number of government scholarships. In 1981 the Soviet Union trained 86,000 students from 146 states, virtually all on Soviet scholarships. The annual rate of increase for students from the third world approximates 20 percent.
By contrast, several Western countries are shortsightedly reducing foreign student numbers by introducing discriminatory tuition charges. Britain now charges foreign students, on the average, three times as much as it does British citizens. As a consequence, new enrollment by foreign students has dropped 25 percent, and applications have fallen by 50 percent since 1979-80. France has raised fees substantially for all foreign students except those from Francophone countries. Foreign students studying in Quebec pay more than four times as much tuition as Canadian students, and Australia has introduced discriminatory university fees as well.
Prompted by rising numbers of foreign students and the example of discriminatory tuition charges in other Western countries, some state legislators and university administrators have unwisely considered imposing sharply restrictive quotas or discriminatory fees at American institutions. On the whole, however, American universities have maintained an admirably open and generous policy.
The overwhelming majority of American institutions charge the same tuition to foreign students as to out-of-state US citizens. Those that charge higher tuition to foreign students only assess marginally higher rates, not at all comparable to the discriminatory levies in Britain, France, and Quebec. In terms of admissions policy, some schools have imposed modest controls on foreign student enrollments, but none excludes foreign students altogether.
State governments have generally demonstrated a commendable commitment to internationalism. Several state legislatures have debated imposition of discriminatory tuition levels, but only Alabama and Idaho have done so, and in Idaho the additional fee is only $50.
While the American record is generally good, the openness of American campuses must be preserved and support for deserving students increased. Educating the future leadership of other nations is a farsighted policy that deserves strong support.