Universities may be non-profit, but they are big business. At the end of fiscal year 2015, for example, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton’s endowments were $38 billion, $26 billion, and $22 billion respectively. Those are correspondingly equivalent to the gross domestic products of Mongolia, Cyprus, and the West Bank and Gaza. University presidents make salaries on par with and often higher than corporate CEOs. Fundraising—traveling the world glad-handing alumni and lobbying—rather than academe has become the primary function of many university presidents.
To be fair, universities have become ever more expensive to run. Government regulations and mandates attached to the receipt of federal funds have burdened campuses with ever more administrators. So, too, has the culture of victimhood, which requires an ever-expanding support staff. Add into the mix the transformation of universities into country clubs competing to offer increasingly luxurious amenities, and management of a university requires ever more cash.
Universities pride themselves on diversity, which they too often define superficially in terms of skin color. Attracting international students to campus kills two birds with one stone: diversity plus full tuition since the foreign students accepted seldom qualify for financial aid from the university.
I am fortunate in my current job to be able to visit perhaps ten different colleges and university campuses each year, sometimes for stand-alone lectures but often for debates. During these visits, I am able to talk to students, professors, and administrators. In addition, many of my peers from graduate school are now tenured faculty, and rising through the ranks of their respective universities. Some of them have raised concern that certain dynamics surrounding ever increasing numbers of foreign students from certain countries have been counterproductive to universities’ educational mission.
The Peoples’ Republic of China sends several hundred thousand students to U.S. colleges, for example. Saudi Arabia sends 60,000. Many of these students fit in and receive a top notch education, but many also cheat on their applications. Academic corruption is fairly commonplace in both countries. In the most blatant cases, students pay others to take various exams required for college admissions, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Langue (TOEFL). Politically-connected students in each country can ensure that their transcripts and extracurricular portfolios highlight what American universities seek rather than what reality is.
Once admitted and on campus, it is clear that these students are not what they claimed to be. In some extreme cases, they cannot speak English well-enough to communicate and cannot understand what is said in class. This forces a choice upon the university: expel the sub-par students or tutor them. The former maintains the school’s quality of education; the latter protects its bottom line. The unending quest to raise funds leads universities to choose the later. Some justify this practice because the tuition paid by the substandard students or their governments subsidizes the financial aid awarded to other students. Others recognize the problem but feel they have no recourse. Add into the mix the fact that some Chinese national students appear to be conducting surveillance on their peers, and the dynamics only get more complicated.
To be fair, fewer university administrations succumb to the quid pro quo of loosening standards than do those which rationalize limits to free speech and intellectual inquiry. The general pattern seems to be that middle-ranked undergraduate programs and masters programs at elite schools make the greatest compromises.
How to resolve the problem? Financial discipline among management would go a long way. So, too, would be a no-nonsense approach to standards. If necessary, universities should proctor their own exams overseas. After all, if dozens of mainland Chinese students can pay $50,000 per year to a university, that university should be able to find $5,000 to send a proctor to one or two cities in that country to oversee and mark exams and conduct in-person interviews.
American universities are facing multiple crises. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has documented threats to free speech on campus and, admirably, stands on objective principle; it does not pass its judgment through partisan litmus tests. Threats to free speech may get the headlines—and deservedly so—but as American universities increasingly become global campuses, willingness to bend standards after the fact when foreign nationals admitted do not match the abilities reflected on their applications can have a deeply corrosive effect on educational quality in America’s most elite colleges and universities.
So many foreigners—the sons and daughters of political and business elite—flock to American universities because they offer the best and broadest education. To destroy that reputation for short-term gain would be mismanagement in the extreme.