Are International Students in the Classroom a Win-Win?

You cannot put people with different experiences, different values, and different backgrounds together and just assume that mutual respect and harmony will result. It might, but it is more likely that it won’t.

January 31, 2016

Who wins by adding international students to the classroom?  In a recent article, Elizabeth Redden quotes Green River College’s president reflecting on the increased number of international students on campus, “It was, one, a financial benefit to the college, but it was also for educating our students on globalization … making sure if we're training students for tomorrow's workforce -- and it is a global world out there and a global economy -- that they have the opportunity to work with international students in the classroom.”

But apparently, the faculty isn’t convinced. The faculty perceives the pursuit of international students as simply a means to mediate the cuts in state funding and (worse) an endeavor in conflict with this community college’s mission — to serve the immediate community.  

Many colleges and universities are turning to international recruitment to fill economic voids resulting from decreased public funding or declining enrollments. Green River deserves some credit for making a considerable investment in staff and services for an increased international enrollment — many colleges pursue international students for income without expanding student services. According to Redden Green River has added a number of new positions to address the needs of their growing international population. The college has not invested in recruiting; rather they pay overseas recruitment agents a commission (roughly $1500 per head) for each international student successfully placed (a topic for another blog). 

Although the college insists that it retains full authority over admissions, at a college with open admission and ESL support for students who don’t achieve a minimum score on a proficiency test, it is difficult to discern what kind of referral from an agent would not be accepted — a very attractive and easy placement for an agent who then collects a nice commission without much fuss. Redden’s article goes on to report that international students are earning GPAs higher than domestic students in college-level classes. This is somewhat alarming and suggests that perhaps international students placed at Green River might have been better served if they had been placed at a different institution where their academic performance might align more closely with the domestic students. 

Reading further in the article, it is clear that international students are presenting faculty with new challenges in the classroom for which they are unprepared and unsupported, and that while additional orientation has been developed to assist international students with their adjustment to U.S. higher education, there is no reference to programs for faculty or domestic students so that they might respond more effectively and (as the president suggests) benefit from the growing presence of international students on campus. 

To make things worse, it seems that the additional services being provided to international students are contributing to the perception that these students are receiving benefits that are not offered equally to local students. In many ways the view seems to prevail that international students have benefited at the expense of domestic students, and that the College’s traditional programs have been discontinued or allowed to deteriorate while resources are redirected to this new, more lucrative population. This is certainly not a win-win.

The purpose of this blog is not to single out Green River College. The problems that the college is experiencing are in no way unique to Green River but a result of naiveté or ignorance of the complexities of diversity. You cannot put people with different experiences, different values, and different backgrounds together and just assume that mutual respect and harmony will result.  It might, but it is more likely it won’t.

Yes, American students (and students everywhere) will live in a world ever more globalized than in the past.  We all need skills to communicate and collaborate across cultures. Having a diverse student body is indeed a good thing, with representation from different regional, ethnic, and racial domestic cultures as well as international diversity.  If we have learned anything from the racial tensions evident on so many U.S. campuses today, it is that without a concerted effort to engage different groups, facilitate dialog and cultivate understanding, differences become a dangerous impediment to the well being of a campus, rather than a blessing. 

The experience of Green River College has much to teach all of us. An influx of international students doesn’t only oblige us to help them adjust to us, but requires a commitment to helping all students, all staff, and all faculty to learn how to respond to (and value) differences. That would surely be a win-win. 


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