Community Commentary: American colleges are outsourcing education

American colleges have responded to harsh criticism that tuition rose four times as fast as the cost of living over the last 25 years — resulting in their graduates leaving school as debt slaves with an average of $25,250 in student loans — by trumpeting that the average starting salaries for college students with bachelor's degrees are still a healthy $48,288.

The only problem with this clever statistic is that the average student graduates from college with a liberal arts degree that pays only $35,508. The reason for the much lower average wage scale is that science, technology, engineering and math majors (STEM) graduates earn much higher starting salaries of $58,669.

Unfortunately, access is shrinking for these lucrative college majors as colleges are increasingly selling STEM classes to foreign students willing to pay an extra 152% in tuition.

Of the 17.5 million undergraduate and graduate students in America today, about 690,000 are from foreign nations. A recent report by the Blumenthal Institute showed a 32% increase in the number of international students in the U.S. compared with a decade ago.

Not only are foreigners in search of STEM degrees attending our schools in record numbers; they are far more apt to pursue higher-level degrees than U.S. students. Foreign students now constitute 2.5% of bachelor's degree students, 10% of graduate students and 33% of doctoral candidates.

Foreign students compared to their American classmates at public colleges and universities pay an average tuition of $20,770 for "out-of-state" fees versus the $8,244 for in-state students; while at private institutions foreign students receive little to no financial aid compared with American students at U.S. colleges.

The Blumenthal's group report and others from the U.S. State Department try to mollify criticism of the trend of selling STEM majors to foreigners by boasting that international students inject $21 billion into the American economy, including money spent on tuition, living expenses and accompanying family members.

Recruiting for this rising tide of foreigners has become big business on most college campuses, who justify this practice by whining that without foreign students they would be forced to cut budgets due to rising costs. But as American colleges have welcomed greater numbers of foreign students, many students and their parents are questioning the ethics of the cadres of commission-paid recruiters colleges use to attract many foreign applicants.

Critics accuse these recruiters of sending thousands of unqualified applicants to the U.S. every year, sometimes allowing students to falsify applications and even skip basic English tests. Cheating on college applications is rampant in China, according to Tom Melcher, chairman of Zinch China, a Beijing-based consulting company that works with U.S. universities.

The company surveyed 250 high school seniors and determined that 90% of Chinese undergraduate applicants submit phony recommendation letters, 70% rely on essays written by others and 50% falsify their transcripts. Melcher attributes the acceptance of cheating in part to "aggressive agents" who typically charge parents $6,000 to $10,000 — and similar — sized bonuses if the student gains admission to a top-ranked school. Those payments do not include the recruiting fees of more than 10% of tuition that agents often charge schools.

The financial reward for getting into an American college and then graduating with a STEM degree more than outweighs the added costs the parents of foreign students pay to educate their sons and daughters. For 2009 there were 1,601,368 college degrees awarded in the U.S.; with 36.9%, going to liberal arts majors and only 16.2% going to STEM majors. By the time these graduates reach mid-career majors according to a survey by; the list of the 20 earners will all go to STEM majors.

The top paying career in present value dollars is expected to be petroleum engineering at $155,000 a year; chemical engineering at $109,000; electrical engineering at $103,000; material science & engineering at $103,000; aerospace engineering at $102,000; physics at $101,000; applied mathematics at $98,600; computer engineering at $101,000; and nuclear engineering at $97,800. The top paying liberal arts degree was in business, which only ranked in the 59th slot

A study from Georgetown University listed the all five of the college majors with the highest unemployment rates as in liberal arts: clinical psychology, 19.5%; fine arts, 16.2%; U.S. history, 15.1%; library science, 15.0%; with military technologies and educational psychology, 10.9%.

Unemployment of STEM majors averaged less than 2%.

The skyrocketing cost of tuition has left many graduating American students as debt slaves with little upward economic mobility. With science, technology, engineering and math increasingly being sold to foreign students for big bucks, the future value of a college education to Americans students may be a bad investment.

But as foreign students take their STEM degrees from American colleges and universities home, so to may go the intellectual skills and capabilities that will produce the new industries and high-paying jobs of the future.

CHRISS STREET is the former Orange County treasurer-tax collector and a Newport Beach resident.

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