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Winter for Higher-Ed
Colleges Trying Everything—Except Cutting Costs

With enrollments down and tuition peaking, many colleges are looking everywhere for way to enhance their revenue streams. A new piece in the New York Times describes the rise of “bridge programs,” which are essentially third-party companies hired by colleges to recruit foreign students to study in American schools and prepare them for a foreign educational system.

The purpose of these programs is twofold: There is an abundance of talented foreign students eager to study in the U.S., but most have only heard of the big-name schools, but there aren’t a lot of spots open. Enter bridge programs, which steer foreign students toward lesser-known schools and offer them crash courses in the peculiarities of the American learning environment.

The second purpose of these programs—boosting applications and enrollment—is of more interest to the universities:

“It is a wonderful source of revenue,” said Sabah U. Randhawa, Oregon State’s provost. “It helps us afford to admit more resident students, offer them more aid, expand the faculty and infrastructure.”

The university’s joint venture, called Into Oregon State, has about 1,400 students, most from China and most studying engineering. Dr. Randhawa wants to expand it significantly, in part, he said, “because we want more academic and national diversity, and because engineering is an expensive discipline.”

We have no problem with colleges admitting more foreign students, of course. The more the merrier, in fact. But the interesting thing about this is that these foreign students are more likely to pay full price for their tuition. A ha! Now we see what’s really going on.

We’ve long speculated that schools will eventually be forced to make painful decisions about cutting administrative overhead and lowering prices, as American students become more price conscious. There are even signs that this is finally beginning to happen. But schools are also trying to put off the need to make tough choices as long as possible, and bridge programs, by drawing in more students willing to pay full price, are a way of doing this.

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  • Jonathan

    I suspect if Walter Mead examined how much the state of Oregon has cut the subsidy for Oregon State and other Oregon public universities (per resident student, in inflation adjusted dollars), he might have a different take on whether attempts have been made to cut costs.

    Also, I would take him more seriously if I thought that the expenditure per student at his own Bard College was remotely close to that at Oregon State.

    • free_agent

      You write, “the expenditure per student at his own Bard College”. From what I can find, it looks like the data to calculate that is available in the “Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. (

      But that doesn’t seem to address the original question, which is not expenditure on students but total expenditures, and not the absolute amount but the change over time.

      • Jonathan

        Right, the data are available if you know where to look. I haven’t the slightest doubt that Bard spends far, far more per student than Oregon State.

        It’s “expenditure per student” not “expenditures on students” More like education-related expenditure per student. Not “total expenditures” of course a school with 25,000 students is likely to have a greater total budget than one with 1000 students. (I don’t have Bard in mind on this.)

        And again, Oregon, like most states, but more than most, has drastically cut subsidy per student at its public universities. It’s not surprising that those schools are scrambling to repair their budgets any way they can. And it doesn’t mean they haven’t tried to “control costs.”

        Walter Russell Mead is sounding like a 1%-er scolding the shrinking middle class for not tightening their belts in response to reduced income.

        • Tom

          In which case, he’d be a jerk, but he’d still be right.

          • Jonathan

            It’s more like he’s scolding them for not trying to offset the drop in their usual income by looking for new sources of income.

            When my dad had trouble feeding our family, he went out and got a new job, at considerable trouble to himself.

            Seems like that’s analogous to what Oregon State is doing — if the state no longer wants to support them, and won’t allow sufficient tuition increases to make up the difference — well, go find students who are willing and able to pay more.

  • Boritz

    In the past admission decisions were separate from ability to pay. I wonder if we are going to see the admissions dept. working much more closely with the bursar’s office to admit the best students from a revenue position. It would make economic sense though at an ugly cost.

    • free_agent

      The currently popular model is to admit domestic students mostly independently of ability to pay, but to charge all foreign students full freight. This avoids placing the “ugly cost” on domestic student, but still brings in the money. Some colleges (e.g., my alma mater, Grinnell College) also seek to have a financially diverse set of foreign students, but it costs them a lot of lost sales.

  • free_agent

    What? A business tries everything possible to prevent total sales from declining? How can that be?

  • WilliamK

    Cutting state support for colleges is a good thing. It is de facto privatization What’s wrong with that?

    • Jonathan

      I take it you don’t believe in public higher education.

      What’s wrong with this “de facto privatization”?

      For starters, it’s not really — the public campuses aren’t really allowed to behave like private entities. For starters, like being able to set tuition at market rates.

  • Fat_Man

    What does the evacuation of China tell us about the state of higher education in the US?

    First it tells us that it really is all about the Benjamins. Glories
    of the liberal arts? Not the foreigners. They can’t read English well
    enough to deconstruct the heteronormative violence inherent in
    Shakespeare. They are over in the engineering quad studying computer

    Second, I have heard many college presidents tell students and
    parents that their tuition dollars, even if paid in cash at retail, do
    not begin to cover the cost of their four years at Old Siwash. If that
    were true, they wouldn’t rooting around the farthest corners of Shendong
    province looking for cash customers. They would be reducing their
    losses by cutting the number of students.

    Third, the whole thing makes the colleges complaints that governments
    are shorting them look very shabby. Why should the government pump
    money into the colleges either by direct grant, student loans and grants, or
    tax exemptions? The answer as I understand it is that the future of our
    country depends on a citizenry that has college degrees. If that is so,
    why do the the colleges, who are selling it to foreigners, deserve
    subsidies from the taxpayers?

    Those of you who believe that spending their bright college years in
    the ivy covered walls, will cause foreign students to become friends of
    the United States would do well to contemplate the example of an
    Egyptian school teacher named Sayyid Qtub, who spent a year at an
    American college and was so appalled by what he saw there, that he went
    back to Egypt and became one of the founders of radical Islamism.

    A note about the grad students. Many of them are mere lab monkeys
    spending a few years watching test tubes go drip, drip, drip in the labs
    of the Principal Investigators. If they were making tennis shoes you
    would cry for them. If the PIs had to hire Americans and pay them a
    decent wage, it would restrict the conference budget.

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