TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Trade surplus? “Imported” college students become a profit center.

“Getting tough on China” has become bumper-sticker material this campaign season, tapping into voter anxiety that America’s trade imbalance with Asia equates to a loss of economic power. But there is one valuable Chinese product that America is only too eager to import, and that’s college students.

Out-of-state students, including international ones, are a lucrative revenue source for cash-starved public colleges, which can charge — and collect — tuition that is sometimes four-fold the sticker price for in-state residents. It hasn’t yet reached football fervor — still no reports of a prized Chemistry major wheeling up to class in a factory-fresh Lexus with dealer plates — but there’s undeniably an arms race for good-paying recruits.

In Montana, the state has just given campuses discretion to offer discounts of up to $5,000-a-year off the sticker price of nonresident tuition — which still means that out-of-staters will pay an average of $12,643 a year, more than double the $5,684 for an in-state attendee, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Other recruiting techniques are less readily disclosed. The Chronicle of Higher Education has extensively covered the increasing use of overseas recruiting agentshmm, maybe this is starting to sound like football after all — who, in some cases, have crossed the line from identifying identifying promising prospects to actually writing their suspiciously fluent application essays.

At schools like the University of Michigan — where non-Michiganers comprise nearly 43 percent of the student body, up from 35.5 percent just three years ago — diversification is the result of concerted marketing plans. The bottom line of UM’s nonresident marketing plan was… well, the bottom line: “At current tuition levels, a one percentage point increase in the proportion of out-of-state undergraduates generates additional revenue of $6MM per year to the University,” a June 2010 study concluded.

Diversity on campus is an acknowledged asset as students prepare to compete in a shrinking world, and it’s admirable that colleges are opening their doors to provide opportunity to first-generation college-goers whose education may uplift entire families. But there are costs and tradeoffs associated with this seeming win-win practice.

Last week, a University of San Francisco associate dean quit in protest of the college’s aggressive recruitment of students from China, many of whom, the college admits, have arrived with “weak English skills” requiring remedial coursework. If colleges are adding capacity to teach English composition and comprehension to immigrant students, then it’s worth inquiring whether some of the “profits” realized off these high-paying customers — USF was charging $36,000 a year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle — might be illusionary.

Journalists at public colleges should be asking — either at the campus level or, if that’s not a success, at the level of a state board of regents or other higher-ed agency — to see public records that reflect:

  • How much is spent on contracts with overseas agents and recruiters to bring in applicants — and do the contracts require ethical practices and contain any penalties for ethical breaches?
  • What is the retention rate for non-U.S. nationals, and how does that compare with retention for American-born students?
  • Does the college have a UM-style “recruitment plan” for out-of-state students, and has it set percentage targets for an ideal student mix — and with what financial payoff?
  • How many sections of remedial English are offered, and how has enrollment been changing?

The number of in-state versus out-of-state students — and how those numbers have changed over time — is a statistic that any college, public or private, should readily disclose on request. And if not, it’s often available through third parties such as The College Board, which studies trends in all things collegiate, or the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics.

A valid question to pose both to college administrators and to the lawmakers who oversee their state funding: Is the point coming — or has it already been reached — where the globalization of the student body will cost universities support from parochial state legislators who are accustomed to the good-ol’-days when “Homestate U.” would accept every local constituent’s nephew?