I’ve thought about the question of nationalism and higher education for a while. News prompted me to write about it this week. A plan in May proposed to limit the number of out of district students at the University of California to 10% of total enrollments. The UC already has a cap on such enrollments. Lowering the cap will be the most consequential for the most in-demand University of California campuses: Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego. While the proposed policy applies to all nonresident students, system wide
, there are more international that out-of-state domestic students.
About the May proposal, the LA Times
The state Senate has unveiled a proposal to reduce the proportion of nonresident incoming freshmen to 10% from the current systemwide average of 19% over the next decade beginning in 2022 and compensate UC for the lost income from higher out-of-state tuition.
This would ultimately allow nearly 4,600 more California students to secure freshmen seats each year, with the biggest gains expected at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. The share of nonresidents at those campuses surpasses the systemwide average, amounting to a quarter of incoming freshmen. UC, however is pushing back, saying the plan would limit its financial flexibility to raise needed revenue and weaken the benefits of a geographically broad student body.
“It’s not about ending out-of-state students — they really add to the mix and the educational experience,” said Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), whose Senate budget subcommittee on education discussed the plan this month. “We just have to make sure there’s enough spaces for in-state students.”
An updated plan has limits the further restrictions to UCLA, Berkeley, and San Diego, and allows the campuses 5 years to achieve the gaol of reducing out of district students. It’s less aggressive but will like have similar effects. Karin Fischer has more details here
Let’s pause to acknowledge why the plan is attractive many. Access to higher education is stratified. Too many students cannot get into the institution of their choice, including public universities, even when they are prepared for the work. Low-income students and students who hold marginalized racial identities are too often excluded from of the most sought after institutions.
Public universities recruit out-of-district students for all kinds of reasons. Universities, especially selective ones, prefer a diverse student body, including students from different places, because they believe (probably correctly) that it enriches the educational experience. But they also recruit out-of-district students for prestige. Selecting students with high grades and test scores can boost ratings and enhance the perception that the institution is “a good school” (whatever that means).
A big reason - the big reason? - campuses recruit out-of-district students is for the money. Money seeking can be a problem because it suppresses access and diverts from the public, and state-serving, mission.
by Crystal Han, Ozan Jaquette, Katrina Salazar shows that public universities exhibit a troubling tendency to recruit from affluent, primarily white, out-of-state high schools. A study
by economists found that public universities turn to international students to fill revenue gaps when state funding goes down. My own research
identified an association between new international student enrollment and increased tuition revenue at public doctoral universities.
Seems pretty clear to me that international students are a source of revenue. In other English-speaking countries, they call recruiting International students “export education,” which makes clear the commercial elements to the whole thing. No wonder people find it a little bit icky.
But one thing about the rationale for the CA cap in international students stood out to me. Proponents framed the as allowing 4,600 more Californian students to access UC campuses. That means that the operating assumption is that international students displace domestic students. One problem with that assumption, it’s probably not true:
A nifty new paper
by economist Mingyu Chen not only finds that international students do not crowd out local students and might help to increase the supply of seats for in-state students.
According to Chen’s findings:
On average, for every additional international freshman enrolled, the in-state freshman enrollment increases by 2.2 at US public universities.
What gives? As Chen explains, public universities are probably not space-constrained, but they are cash-constrained. The additional revenue from international students allows universities to subside lower-pay in-state students and enroll more. Public universities respond to declining state funding by recruiting more international students. That response also expands opportunities for in-state students relative to the supply offered absent the new international students.
If you wanted to take a moral position, a framing more consistent with the evidence would be that international students are exploited to pay for local students. I’m partly sympathetic to that line of thinking but return the issue of the national health service as my example. Most students get a subsidy no matter how much tuition they pay. That means tuition doesn’t cover all that it costs to provide the education; therefore, it is neither politically nor financially plausible to fully decouple the benefits of higher education, including the subsidy rate from a jurisdiction. From my perspective, if we are going to recruit students at least in part to fund our universities, we ought to treat them well and not with suspicion.
That brings me to another concern with the CA framing of limiting international students to make space for domestic students. It’s a short trip to some racist tropes. The framing suggests international students are unwanted invaders who are taking spaces from local students.
Troubling, especially when the evidence suggests this isn’t true. Qualitative studies by higher educator researchers Christina Yao
and Jenny Lee
show that international students experience racism on and off-campus. Given that students from China, Korea, and other East Asian contras make up a large share of the international student population in the US, this concern is especially relevant. In recent months, anti-Asian violence
is rising as racists wrongly blame Asian appearing people for the pandemic.
A false choice
I should be clear. So far as I know, the CA proposal is about the percentage of out of district students, including international, not the total number of students. That means that UC could increase the number of international and California students, so long as California students increased proportionally more so that International students were at or below 10% of total enrollments.
But the framing is about a choice. It goes like this: The UC can enroll international students. Or it can enroll students from California. That, in my view, is a false choice.
I’ve already explained why I think it’s a false choice. Public universities can finance more in-state students by enrolling International ones. Ok, I’m repeating myself.
It’s also a false choice because it assumes a fixed number of students. This assumption is based on the desire for some campuses - say the ones in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego, to maintain selective admissions to keep their rankings and prestige up. We don’t need to have a scarcity mindset. Expand. Be open. Grow … Goodness, now I sound like I’m getting energy from crystals, probably because I’ve been thinking about California.
It’s also a false choice because the state of California could choose to fund the UC sufficiently.
Including fully supporting ALL
UC campuses, not just the most prestigious (thanks to Thomas Dickson
for sharing this article). Broke
, a new book by sociologists Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen, examine the consequences of inadequate funding at the University of California’s newest campuses, Riverside and Merced. Both enroll a higher share of low-income, Black, and Latinx students when compared to the UC overall. Both are also starved for resources. Given the financial precocity of these universities, Hamilton and Nielsen explain that students are exposed to negative consequences of austerity in ways that students at other UC campuses are not. This is the result of a decision to stop adequately funding higher education. As Hamilton put it:
Our country made a choice in the last decades of the twentieth century to withdraw funding for public higher education, just as waves of racially marginalized youth gained greater access. This was likely not coincidental.
Framing the problem as partially caused by International students taking places at the better resources universities is not just factually incorrect but has the potential to compound the harm. California could choose to invest in Riverside, Merced, and other UC campuses to expand access. It could open more campuses and fully fund them. That is a choice that the state could make.
By thinking beyond methodological nationalism and thinking about jurisdictionally defined welfare critically, I argue that we can begin to understand the UC international student cap proposal in more complex, nuanced, perhaps counter-intuitive terms.
A favor, please.
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– Edited again on June 6 for content and clarity –
– Edited at 9:40 AM June 28 for typos and to correct the Canadian fee regime. Edited at 12:00 on June 28 to reflect that Mingyu Chen is no longer a PhD student. Edited on June 29 for clarity. –