Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tuition, Fees, and Students from the PRC in Oxford, OH (11 Nov. 2014)

[In the USA], public four-year colleges have increased
tuition and fees by 4.2% annually for the past decade ….

            Back East from where I now live, in "The Heart of It All" in Oxford, Ohio, in John Boehner's Congressional District, early November 2014 saw a bit of a tussle occasioned by a guest column in The Miami Student running under the headline "Admitting international students for the wrong reasons brings down the university."
            Apparently after a fair amount of student-journalistic soul searching, the editors ran the column over the signature "A Concerned Faculty Member" and gave the writer's I.D. line as "Anonymous | Miami University | Faculty Member." The author's status as a faculty member was questioned on a Miami U ListServ by at least one of my former colleagues, but that suspicion may do an injustice to the Student's student editors, and I'll accept the explanation that the author was "sen[d]ing this letter of concern anonymously as I am concerned that revealing my name could harm my [career] trajectory within Miami." The author ends with "Incidentally, it is a sad fact that faculty is made to feel unsafe to bring concerns such as these to the attention of the university for fear of being labeled 'racist' or 'anti-equal opportunity.' I want you to know that these concerns are not just my own; they are concerns of many faculty members and many students who are afraid to come forward. I expect you" — the Trustees? — "to take these concerns into deepest consideration and reevaluate your admissions policies especially regarding language proficiency of international students." It's also a sad fact that the author, even if a hoaxing undergrad, doesn't proofread well — I resisted the impulse to put "[sic]" after each error — and sadder that The Miami Student does little better than most current non-student publications in copyediting.
            Still, even if "Anonymous" isn't a member of the teaching faculty, concerned or otherwise, public comments with the on-line article and comments I've read elsewhere indicate that there are at least perceived problems with Miami University International students who lack "the conversational skills to follow along with lecture materials or to contribute to large or small group discussions." And there are at least some on campus who agree with Anonymous that "The majority of these students do not have the English reading and writing skills to read and comprehend in class exams, out of class reading assignments or out of class writing assignments" — and a number agree that "the level of disengagement the international students display during class is downright disrespectful …."
            Okay, the guest column by Anonymous was and remains intemperate, as were some comments against it.
            My own experience with International students at Miami U at Oxford was generally neutral to strongly positive. The only class I taught with a noticeable number of foreign students was a College Composition course scheduled for students who needed or wanted to take the first semester of a two-term course Second Semester. (Got that? It doesn't matter.) Anyway, the class was largely University athletes, so I got the national stereotypes fulfilled with Canadian hockey players and an Australian swimmer, all of whom — the hockey players and swimmer — blended in with The Great White Majority of MUO students. More interesting were the two students from Africa: both products of a British-style education and both of whom did very well in a course largely based in English "Sayings." English was their third or fourth language, but they just assumed that to understand a language and culture one had to learn the proverbs and truisms and clichés; so they knew more English sayings than the North American students did. (They also reminded me that Africa is a continent and not some monolithic culture: aside from sharing a "Public School" style education and traditional attitudes toward proverbs, the two students were definitely different. So I got to look on at similarities and differences; there may be an English-speaking North American culture more than Canadians like to think, and significantly more than there's some "African culture.")
            From afar geographically — California — and in time (I retired in 2006), I could be annoyingly unemotional about this issue with my former colleagues and suggest to faculty on a Miami University ListServ that they'd just been offered "a teachable moment." How did substantial numbers of mostly Chinese students wind up in Oxford, OH, and why might a fair number of them have trouble with the language of instruction? There are, after all, well-established procedures for guaranteeing that foreign students can get by when they arrive on an American campus, and respectable schools have support services to help them do better than just get by. Given the effort it takes to come to Ohio from China, and given the pretty high proportion of truth in the stereotype of the serious Chinese student, why might Miami at Oxford get even a few Chinese students with limited language skills and bad attitudes?
            There were, of course, questions of racism and xenophobia in the perception of such problems: as President Kennedy used to say, "Where there's smoke, sometimes there's a smoke machine" — but my younger colleagues were on the race/ethnicity issues immediately, and I didn't have to tell them about the "Yellow Peril!!!" periods of hysteria in US history. (I told them anyway; I dealt with the subject for a couple years.)
            And race isn't an abstract issue at Miami University, Oxford, OH: we have been and to a great extent remain notoriously nondiverse — as in mostly wealthy, Incandescent White — and parochial. Indeed, the bitter joke went that any African-American student smart enough to attend Miami at Oxford was smart enough not to. And Anonymous suspected that the Miami administration was bringing in "bodies of color" (my formulation) to help Miami's statistics and to do so without panicking the herd (also my formulation) or Ohio parents who'd just as soon have their offspring at a majority-White — way majority White — institution far away from most things urban, and emphatically WASP and WASC ("WASC" is from a colleague of mine who was also a priest; it's a useful term for a Catholic who is sufficiently assimilated to be socially and culturally indistinguishable from a WASP). One hypothesis to try out would be that if, but only if, there are unqualified International students on campus, might part of the explanation for their presence be the playing of bureaucratic numbers games?
            The main thing I could and did tell my necessarily younger former colleagues was that they should dig up some emeriti who'd stuck around south-west Ohio and ask for the story, "Grampses, how did Miami University at Oxford get the Ohio Board of Regents to approve a Miami University College of Engineering and Computing?" After all, if you put the pointy end of a pair of compasses in Oxford, OH, and draw a circle with a 300-mile radius, you will take in a number of quite fine engineering and computer-science programs, including some world-class operations (Purdue, OSU, the U of I, Case-Western, et al). There are excellent and obvious reasons MUO would want an engineering school — more attractive gender parity as well as more ethnic diversity, higher test scores, more serious students, prestige as a graduate institution, grants — but how could Miami convince the Regents that they could get engineering students to attend and generate enough money for teachers to teach them, and do research and get grants and awards and all?
            Was Miami going to import engineering students?
            When I visited the campus a while back, that, precisely, was the theory, although the rumors didn't include statistical breakdowns on the engineering program. As the University of California was accused of doing in a dust-up a while back (and probably to return with the Santa Anas), gossip had it that Miami was bringing in foreign students for the higher tuition and fees that non-Ohioan pay (figure over $40K per year, with housing).
            So Miami University may be actively and publically recruiting abroad — one colleague asserted it was — and (the colleague wrote) at least had the reputation where she was in China of not being overly fastidious about the quality of students: If you can afford to pay, MU wants you!
            But this figurative thread can be pulled on more.
            Why does a public university like Miami have to depend upon tuition and fees? As an undergrad at the University of Illinois, I paid what amounted to a service charge. The U of I is now a lot more expensive, and even the University of California system is now charging for classes. The State of Ohio was never generous is supporting higher education, and when I left Miami U the State was picking up maybe 5% of the tab.
            In part, that was A Good Thing: as David Eisenman et al. demonstrated back in the last third of the 20th century, highly subsidized higher education transfers money from poorer people (who pay sales taxes) to richer people (who go to college more). And there were a number of substantial, responsible suggestions for how to correct that injustice and still have a good college education available for any American who wanted it and could hack it.
            Indeed, Governor John Gilligan of Ohio suggested a Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program, and no less than Yale University tried one out. In the form I like, the State (in some sense) fronts the money for college, and students pay back the entire costs of their education if they can afford to, and when they can afford to — and for as long as it takes to pay back the State. Given that the US Internal Revenue Service exists and is good at collecting money, this could be done as a "revenue neutral" program through the Federal Government. And a PAYE program could be open to older adults: eighteen to twenty-two is a good age for a lot of people to go to college, but not for all. (Hint: If they still call themselves "kids" and think their parents owe them a college education, there's a fair chance they're not ready for college. [Think about it: at least ideally free education for people's kids when they're kids — children — but asking parents to pay for the education of adults: Why?!])
            So why don't we have a large scale PAYE program and not the current mockery of one you've probably never heard of? Hint: There's a lot of money to be made by banks making student loans backed by the United States.
            Like many good scientific quests, there's a lot to be said for The Miami Student's doing some investigative journalism starting with asking if there are a significant number of linguistically or otherwise unqualified International students at Miami University at Oxford and, if so, how did they get admitted — and sometimes graduated.
            With luck, non-student journalists will get involved, and we can have a national discussion of why higher education has gotten so much more expensive.
            And if you are a journalist that will investigate, check out colleges becoming more like highly-bureaucratized big businesses: with rising numbers of administrators — highly-paid administrators — and competition for clients with luxury living: including semi-pro sports, fancy dorms, state-of-the-art recreational facilities, and, at Miami University at Oxford anyway, a tradition of tuition and fees high enough to keep out the riff-raff (today's costs certainly would've kept me out at any age).
            And while they're at it, journalists in and around the Oxford, OH, area might want to see if the Honorable if not always useful John Boehner finally did something for his district and pulled a string or two to bring home some bacon to Miami University as a commercial/educational operation and for the economy of south-west Ohio or maybe even a nice pork-roast of an engineering school, with students to help fill it — and maybe some other majors. The Boehner gambit I doubt: he seems to have been quite consistent in declining to earmark funds for projects in his district (more's the pity!). The other crassly economic and Public Relationshypotheses, though: those are worth investigating.

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