International Opinion

The Booming Business of English-Language Learning: Dollars Don’t Always Make Sense

By Kaitlin E. Thomas — December 19, 2014 4 min read
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International students and their families bring millions of dollars not only to U.S. higher education institutions, but also the communities they are located in. (Visit MappingtheNation.net to see at a glance how much they contribute to your state or county). Yet Kaitlin Thomas, Visiting Instructor of Spanish & ELL at Washington College and Instructor of Spanish at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, wonders if we provide these students with the supports they need to succeed in our system.

Have you noticed a change in college campus demographics? Teachers, is there a distinct international presence that was not previously as prevalent in your classes? Do you find that you’re dealing with learning challenges that have much more to do with English being a second language than thematic content comprehension? If so, welcome to the new face of higher education in the United States, one with a distinct international (and more specifically Asian) flair.

A Big Investment
Of the figures available to explain such an increase in international student presence, there are perhaps two facts most worth extracting, particularly when considering the plight of small, liberal arts, American colleges who often do not have sufficient resources, personnel, and facilities to serve their new international student clientele. First, according to the 2014 Open Doors Report on International Education, 50% of the 886,052 international students in 2013-14 hailed from China, South Korea, or India; and second (pay attention here), about 65% of this group pay out of pocket, leveraging personal and family financial sources to cover costs.

When we consider how expensive post-secondary education is, and again hone in on the small liberal arts institutions that are often astronomical in price, this could be an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars given that international students are often exempt from domestic scholarships and financial aid. Consequently, Chinese, Korean, and Indian students are paying full freight to earn a degree that will allegedly be a game-changer upon graduating—the adage of an American degree being an influential and important key to opening doors, resonates perhaps even more strongly with Asian students, families, and employers.

So What‘s the Problem?
On the surface it appears that the American college system has determined a way to “fix” what seems to be an ongoing paradox of survival. If college is simply too expensive for domestic students who aren’t applying, attending, or finishing degrees with as much gusto as in the past, why not turn to a market that is not yet saturated by academic and professional disenchantment, and financial inability?

The issue here is twofold. Many Asian students coming to study in the U.S. for a four-year degree were informed of programs and opportunities by way of a middle man—the recruiter—whose purpose is to sell the school’s reputation, its limitless possibilities, and guaranteed admission. “Truth and accuracy?” Throw them out the window. “Proficiency assessment?” Flexible, we can figure it out later. “How much?” Well, what’s a number really when we’re talking about your future as an eventual wealthy, successful, American college graduate?

Because of the financial stakes being wagered, too often students and families are able to dictate what they will and will not do simply because they can (indeed, a potential $250,000 earning off of one student would convince any administrator that concessions can, of course, be made). As a result, the balance of power shifts, and students arrive on campus expecting more of the same. When classes inevitably become difficult and deadlines come and go, negotiating exceptions seems not only possible, but also a right guaranteed by having done it before.

Too many students are being admitted with a misperception of what their second language proficiencies are (the fault of which is often not their own, but rather the salespeople selling the dream), and are inserted into situations that are minimally able, at best, to provide English as a second language support in such a specific and academically nuanced way. Lecture comprehension, note-taking, and daily readings all instigate the proverbial domino effect, leading to a brutal psychological onslaught of pressure, failure, and culture shock compounded by negative perceptions held by professors who often feel that, yet again, they do not know how to work with or help a student. Passing grades are given because it’s easier, or failing grades are given because there’s no alternative, neither scenario of which is productive for anyone involved.

Returns on Investment
If these 886,052 students are investing in us, the American college system, wouldn’t it be wise to invest in the programs, faculty, and curriculum that can ensure their success? Having witnessed how one liberal arts college is in a situation of relying on the revenue paid by this 65%, showing no sign of slowing down international recruitment, the urgency to better confront and anticipate academic and social issues that such students will encounter has become paramount to student success and faculty perspective. Without the development of “English for academic purpose” curriculums, which specifically target the academic challenges unique to independent and intensive environments such as a liberal arts school, students will only continue to transfer to larger universities where they are able to disappear in the masses, seek assistance at established English institutes, or even worse, perpetuate a different type of disenchantment by dropping out and giving up on this new American (college) dream.

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