By Richard Pérez-Peña
CORVALLIS, Ore. — As the anthropology instructor engaged her class, a fault line quickly developed. American students answered and asked questions, even offered opinions, but the foreigners — half the class, most from China — sat in silence.
It became clear that some had understood little of the lecture here at Oregon State University and were not ready to be enrolled. In fact, they are not, at least not yet.
Instead, those students fit into a fast-growing and lucrative niche in higher education, of efforts to increase enrollment of foreigners with transitional programs to bridge the cultural divide — often a chasm — between what it means to be a college student in their own countries and in the United States.
Oregon State’s program, a joint venture with a private company, Into University Partnerships, prepares students to move into the university’s mainstream after a year, as Oregon State sophomores.
Colleges want, and increasingly need, more foreign students, not only for high-minded reasons, but also because foreigners generally pay full price. Recruitment from overseas is a rare and increasingly important financial bright spot at a time when state support for higher education has dropped to historic lows, research grants are declining, consumers are objecting to tuition increases, and the supply of college-age Americans is stagnant.
“It is a wonderful source of revenue,” said Sabah U. Randhawa, Oregon State’s provost. “It helps us afford to admit more resident students, offer them more aid, expand the faculty and infrastructure.”
The university’s joint venture, called Into Oregon State, has about 1,400 students, most from China and most studying engineering. Randhawa wants to expand it significantly, in part, he said, “because we want more academic and national diversity, and because engineering is an expensive discipline.”
English is just one of numerous challenges for the foreigners that must be addressed in the transition year. Many say they are used to classes in which only the teachers speak, they do not call on students, students have few choices about what work they will do, and grades are based entirely on a few written exams.
“This tradition of class discussion and activities is very strange to us,” said Yuqi Zhang, a student from China.
A recently arrived South Korean student, Min Jae Lee, said, “In American university, student is free, study attitude is free.”
Even taking notes can be an obstacle in a class taught in English, with frequent digressions that can make it harder to extract the central points. Instructors and students say that in many cultures, students are largely expected to repeat information given by the authorities, and they have to learn Western views of plagiarism and attribution.
Into Oregon State has a 12-person student care team that offers workshops and personal counseling on cultural issues that go far beyond the academic: dating etiquette, notions of personal space and privacy, driving and drinking laws, attitudes toward mental health, body language, and standards of interaction with peers, faculty members or even, if needed, the police.
The most prestigious American schools have no shortage of foreign applicants and have their pick of the best. But most colleges and universities are relatively unknown worldwide and lack the resources to do overseas recruiting. And while the supply of students abroad who want an American education is immense, the number who are actually prepared for it is much more limited.
A number of for-profit companies have stepped into that breach, offering recruitment services or college preparatory boot camps, but a handful offer something more ambitious, working with American colleges to create bridge programs for foreigners, a more common practice in Britain and Australia.
Six years ago, there were no programs of that kind in the United States, but now at least 15 American universities have them, working with companies like Into and Study Group, both based in Britain; Navitas, an Australian company; and Kaplan Inc., with more scheduled to come on line.
The trend of colleges’ hiring private companies for new functions has been underway for decades. Few colleges, for example, run their own dining halls anymore, and many campus bookstores have become outposts of national chains.
“But this is an additional leap because it’s much closer to our core mission,” said Peter N. Stearns, provost of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., which recently announced an agreement with Into. He and other administrators say universities have moved cautiously with this particular strain of outsourcing, worried about ceding control of curriculum or admissions, or watering down either academics or the caliber of the student body.
“Into approached us five years ago, but we decided to build our own program, which in retrospect was probably a mistake,” Stearns said. “We’re pleased with what we’ve got, but it’s small, 125 students. We want to do it on a much bigger scale, and we’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t.”
The private companies have recruitment operations around the world, so they can find students, screen them for quality, direct them to Western schools they might not have heard of, and provide support services on campus. The programs vary in structure, duration and revenue-sharing arrangements. In Into’s program, the universities control the academic side, providing the curriculum and employing the professors, and the students attend for at least a full academic year before enrolling in the university.
At Into Oregon State, some students are just studying English, while others are heading to graduate school, but most intend to enroll as undergraduates. The university decides whether they have performed well enough to make that transition. Most do.
The foreign students take courses that a domestic freshman might take, but with a twist. Irene Rolston, for example, teaches several sections of Comparative Cultures, some with only Oregon State students, and some where about half the students are in the Into program. In the mixed classes, she is helped by language instructors who also work with the foreign students outside class on their English skills.
Students in the Into program pay slightly more than the usual price charged to non-Oregonians, which is roughly $34,000 this year for tuition, fees, room and board. Once they enroll in the university at large, they pay the standard out-of-state charges.
Before the program began, Oregon State had about 900 international students, fewer than half of them undergraduates, out of more than 20,000. That figure has more than doubled and continues to rise. The next goal is a big increase in the number of Oregon State students who study abroad, said Randhawa, the provost.
“I think it’s absolutely critical for folks to know different cultures and understand the world,” he said. “To me, this is more important in the long haul than any discipline they learn.”