At one time, the US dominated several industries. Those numbers have dwindled. However, higher education is one of just a few remaining industries in which the US dominates the competition. US colleges and universities are a beacon of inspiration for scholars from around the world. A US education is considered comprehensive, desirable and prestigious in all four corners of the world and the number of international applications to US colleges and universities grows annually. Certainly there are complications and challenges in a growing sector and universities compete to attract domestic and global talent. However, like all businesses, US colleges and universities face their own set of challenges. Two of the most pressing concerns are applicant fraud and financial solvency.
One of the major challenges for universities with international students is maintaining the integrity of the application process and, in particular, how to deal with systemic applicant fraud and ethical violations. Fraud is not a major concern for domestic students since standardized tests are well monitored in the US and the cultural expectation is clear. It’s a different story for many countries abroad. For example, China historically and culturally has a very different perception of ethics (as demonstrated by China’s approach to intellectual property) than the US (and in general, the western world). The problem appears to be exacerbated since Chinese students encompass the largest population of international students in the US—about one-third of the international student population within the country.
In fact, there is an entire industry in China solely dedicated to gaining Chinese students entrance into US universities and colleges—regardless if the students meet the requirements. These organizations proceed in accordance with their own cultural standards—which are very different from American standards. In addition to scheduling professional test takers (with fake IDs) to take exams such as the GMAT and GRE for students, these dubious organizations arrange, for a hefty fee, of course, to falsify information, invent student bios, plagiarize essays and manipulate transcripts.
Of course this is particularly upsetting and baffling to US administrators and admission officers. It’s important to understand the cultural perception through the Chinese cultural lens before condemning. An ethnocentric and judgmental response is not only inappropriate; it accomplishes nothing. We, as Americans, should try to understand there are different cultural approaches to decision making. For example, in the US, plagiarism is considered a serious offense. In China, to copy someone else’s work is considered a compliment to the writer.
Of course this doesn’t mean that US education leaders should condone behavior that violates our western standards. When someone attends a US school, they must abide by US ethical standards and rules. However, this is the key and the most important segment of this blog: Educational leaders have the obligation to make US ethical expectations very clear to international students before taking punitive action. US colleges and universities must be more proactive in communicating ethical standards and expectations to international students prior to enrollment.
The second challenge for admissions officers is finances. Many US student applicants seek financial aid or scholarships. International applicants pay not only the full tuition up front, but are often assessed a premium amount on top of tuition as an international student assessment. The bottom line: international students represent big money and not only substantially add revenue to US higher education’s bottom line, but contribute over $27 billion to the national economy last year.
International students are an important addition to the cultural mosaic of higher education and, for a number of social and economic reasons we should encourage the best students to apply—regardless of background. I firmly believe a diverse student cohort enriches the academic experience. However, I believe in a level playing field. Currently, US student applicants are at a distinct disadvantage. Creating a fair and equitable application process and university experience for all is a multi-pronged approach. One, US educational institutions must collaborate and establish a universal, ethical guideline. It should include a provision that clearly states anyone caught using fraudulent or unethical means to gain admission to a US college or university is automatically dismissed from the program. In addition, anyone caught cheating or plagiarizing while enrolled is immediately dismissed from the program. Students should be thoroughly briefed on this policy and this information should be particularly emphasized and clear during information exchanges and recruiting sessions in China.