CAN an American education be ``made in Japan?'' In the latest percolation from the Pacific Rim stew of trade, finance, and cultural exchange, dozens of United States colleges and universities are testing that notion.
From fly-by-night diploma mills to small community colleges to prestigious universities like Temple and Texas A&M, US schools are finding a big demand for ``American-style education'' among Japanese students, on Japanese soil.
Japanese youth, most of whom do not qualify for Japan's most prestigious schools, see English-language training and a degree from the less rigid, more creative US education system as a career ticket in a global economy.
But the proliferation of such programs - the number has doubled to 30 in the last six months - is raising concern from US accrediting bodies. US accrediting bodies are asking why community colleges or state university systems which normally don't even cross state borders are rushing to cross the Pacific to cater to Japanese students.
``The question is who is in control of American education in Japan,'' says Marjorie Peace Lenn, vice president of the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA). ``These institutions leave the US as nonprofit institutions and arrive as proprietary, under Japanese control.''
The schools are being drawn to Japan not only by the cachet of having a strong international program, but also by incentives from real estate developers, construction companies, wealthy politicians, and municipal and prefectural governments eager to promote development in their areas.
These investors often build multimillion-dollar campuses and pay American professors' salaries. They also pay the schools' management fees in addition to basic operating expenses.
With more than 100 additional US colleges and universities conducting feasibility studies for programs in Japan, COPA's membership of regional accrediting bodies recently approved a set of principles of good practice in overseas international programs for non-US nationals. Welcomed by school administrators, it is a window on the problems that have arisen.
For example, the COPA principles ask that US schools not sell the rights to their names, that they provide an accounting of funds designated for all parties to contracts, and that standards for student achievement in the international branch be equivalent to those on the US campus.
The majority of the programs are English-language training courses, but others offer US-accredited general-education credit toward degrees, and Temple University offers a full degree program in Japan through the doctoral level.
However, while some of the American branches have received US accreditation, none are licensed by the Japanese Ministry of Education, and by law they cannot use the Japanese words for university or college.
``There is a genuine idealism at work,'' says Gail Chambers, a professor at the University of Rochester Graduate School of Education. ``But we also found it mixed with other motives and it's the tension between the idealism and more pragmatic motives [that is a problem].''
Ms. Chambers is the coauthor of ``Profiting from Education,'' a report expected to be released May 30 by the Institute of International Education. Some higher-education authorities expect it to be an ``explosive'' criticism of the uncontrolled proliferation of US schools in Japan. (It will also discuss the issue of the Japanese purchase of schools in the US.)
Higher-education experts are also concerned about how to ensure that Japanese students get what they pay for. Ironically, cultural misunderstanding often mars the experience for students, and lawsuits have been filed against at least one school for misrepresentation.
Accustomed to the Japanese system of education, students often mistake US accreditation - a regional, self-regulated process - for a government stamp of approval. Further, they believe that by qualifying for entrance to college, which is very difficult in Japan, they qualify for a degree and that once they pay their tuition, a diploma has been assured.
This cultural context, then, makes certain advertising by Japanese investors misunderstood. For example, US college credit is not always good toward a degree or transferable to other colleges, and taking English courses does not guarantee admission to a degree program that requires English proficiency (only half of Temple's students reach proficiency).
More complex and controversial is what is motivating the rush to Japan now just as the Japanese college-age population is expected to begin a 10-year, 25 percent decline.
But US school administrators are loathe to discuss the financial benefits, preferring to focus on the academic enrichment the programs bring to a school.
Since 1982, Temple University has operated in partnership with a prominent Japanese businessman and member of the lower house of the Diet, Chikara Higashi. The school has 2,000 students paying roughly $9,000 each in annual tuition for the US accredited program. While Julia Ericksen, vice provost for academic programs, says that ``this is not a way to make money,'' she would not discuss what the public institution's fees are.
Mr. Higashi, meanwhile, says Temple's management fee ``is really imposing'' at 10 percent of his revenues, in addition to the operating costs he pays. He says he has profited ``not one yen.''
Texas A&M is one of several state university systems brought into partnership with municipal and prefectural Japanese governments by the USA-Japan Committee for Promoting Trade Expansion, a group formed by legislatures in both nations.
Texas A&M University, Koriyama, which opens its doors May 28, ultimately expects to receive 18 percent above basic operating fees, or $800,000 a year, says Donald McDonald, executive director of the program. Beyond that money, says Dr. McDonald, it is attractive for a school's US students and faculty to have a foreign branch they can attend.