November 5, 2011

Should Diversity Trump Academic Quality?

For the 2009/2010 academic year in United States, China was the leading sending country; having about 128,000 students in the US. India followed in the number two position with 105,000. The astounding thing about this statistic is the percentage increase as this was a 30% increase for Chinese student enrollment, but only a 2% increase for Indian students. (source)

This increase in Chinese students is already showing effects in some colleges across the USA. Here are a few salient changes I noted after reading the article The China Conundrum American colleges find the Chinese-student boom a tricky fit from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Lack of Everyday, Practical English Usage
There is a test called Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) which international students must reach certain grades on before admission can take place. A majority of Chinese are masters at taking this test; but may not be able to practically apply the learning. This is especially important in terms of the TOEFL test. Many have mastered how to crack the exam, but can not understand everyday vocabulary or hold a conversation in English. In fact, when, in 1998, I met one such Chinese student. He identified this as a problem, and was trying to create a curriculum to help his fellow American-bound countryfolk.

Culture Differences
Chinese culture is different than American culture in many ways. Two ways that are notable are that class participation is generally non-existent which means students would not be prone to asking questions, discussing things in class, interrupting the teacher or creating ideas from their own understanding for homework, projects and tests. This means that in China students often write word for word what was given in lectures or textbooks. This is admirable in Chinese culture; unlike in the US where this is considered an offense to individual learning. In America, this is also called as “plagiarizing” which can get students expelled from college.

Money is Flowing In
American colleges have been suffering since the economy took a downturn. With increasing tuition rates and the ability for Americans to find jobs after high school without much education as is needed abroad, getting international students in is a better bet. This becomes more apparent when these international students can actually afford the tuition without scholarships or financial aid. Regardless of the true academic and English ability of the students, though colleges admit it or not, they are running a business and without guaranteed money eventually that business will suffer. So, sometimes they weigh their options.

I am all for students getting a good opportunity in the US and taking full advantage of that. For instance, if someone really can crack the TOEFL and then come to the US and then complete learning English and gain fluency, that’s great. English is required to study in the US. No ifs ands or buts about that. But, is this happening or not? Are the students learning to adapt to American culture linguistically and otherwise or is the college treating them like ‘customers’ and bending to their demands, therefore changing the dynamics socially and academically on campus?

In the article, a few salient points were raised:

  • Teachers are adjusting their lessons. Instead of more class interaction, there is less. Instead of letting students bring their books in the room, they are left outside. (This is a common practice in many Indian colleges. When I studied in India, we had to leave the books outside. Though what is written on the test is from the book, it’s best repeated straight from the brain.)
  • American students are dropping from classes that more Chinese students are in because ‘they are too quiet.’ (ie. No Class Interaction)
  • Chinese students drop classes without more Chinese to be in classes with more Chinese.
I have considered a few ways these few changes can affect the American college experience, ponder these points and share your reflections.

Of course in any situation the biggest group always becomes the scapegoat. This happens with Walmart, Microsoft or any big company. Now, the influx of Chinese students will make headlines for the same reason and get people thinking and talking. I am a proponent of internationalizing our colleges. If it wasn’t for meeting and interacting and befriending the international students I met while studying at the University of Buffalo; I would not have ever studied and earned my Master’s degree in India or decided to explore other cultures and ways of life. The international student interaction on campus was and is indispensible to my personal and professional growth. My argument is “Should the aspirations of the American dream be compromised by changing the very fabric of the culture that attracts people to study in the USA in the first place?”

(Or maybe I have it wrong, and that’s not the reason at all?)

The China Conundrum American colleges find the Chinese-student boom a tricky fit, By Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 2011
Open Doors 2010 International Students in the US, International Student Enrollments Rose Modestly in 2009/10, Led by Strong Increase in Students from China.

Related Posts:
An Indian Student’s First Day Studying in the US (Culture Shock Experience) – by Brijesh Nair
Cross-Cultural Departure Course for Students to Come to the USA

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