How Worthy Are International Degrees?

My musing are not going to cover any ideas concerning a U.S. citizen traveling abroad to gain a degree, or to work towards a degree.

No, my musings have to do with foreign students who come to the United States with a degree already in hand from their home country. Degrees conferred by Western European countries, or Northern European countries are not part of my scrutiny. To some extent, degrees conferred by schools in Japan and South Korea are also immune to scrutiny.

I have argued earlier Education is the most important industry the United States has to offer the world. Few people outside of academia recognize this, or choose to remain remarkably silent in their knowledge. Economists and educators realize the importance of education is not merely limited to U.S. economic strength but global economic strength.

Education is an industry in the United States, make no mistake. Other countries actually do a better job of education than the United States. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have perhaps the best education systems in the world. But, to use an analogy, they are like the sit-down dinner of Higher Education. They serve a small clientele, have a small market, the market itself is founded upon an educated client base, the market respects education, and all parties realize the benefits from the positive feedback loop between families, students, schools, and private industry.

The United States, after 200+ years, is still debating about the validity of education, who should pay for education, how education should be supported, and if education should be supported, and whether or not religious teachings should be part of public school education. I find all of this abhorrent, but such is the case. While the U.S. decides how important education is, or should be, other countries are catching up and surpassing us in skills, knowledge, funding, and innovation.

In spite of the issues and concerns surrounding Higher Education in the United States, one thing is certain: international students still find a degree from a U.S. university more valuable than a degree from their own home country. To some extent, this is not true for some high income OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation Development) countries, such as those I have named. These countries, particularly within the realm of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), have money to support research facilities, hardware, software, and laboratories. Students in these countries have access to common and current technologies.

But, what about low-income OECD countries? What about those countries unable to afford technology? How do the universities in these countries educate competent students? Then, what happens when degrees are conferred and the student wants to attend a program in the United States or Europe? What happens when the host country supports a student but only as far as the taking of certain degree courses and for a limited amount of time?

I pose those questions to guide thinking about the increasing problem among universities whereby international students appear for class, especially graduate school, with a BA/BS degree in hand, yet are unable to function in their graduate coursework, or even in undergraduate work.

Specifically, this is the scenario. A student from “Southvenia” applies for graduate school in the United States. The student has bachelor of science in computer science from the Science and Technology University of Southvenia according to transcripts. The student is accepted, attends graduate classes for a few weeks, then stops attending. Then, the student voices thoughts of withdrawing from at least one class.

Why would this happen? In “Southvenia” there is very little public funding for higher education. All children under the age of 15 can read and write, are taught history, language, and as much science as their meager school can afford to teach. But, there are no chemicals for chemistry class – chemicals, Bunsen burners, and lab equipment cost money. All of the experiments are conducted as “thought experiments” on paper. In college, at the Science and Technology University of Southvenia there is one computer for 75 students. The computer courses, due to the lack of computers, are all taught as “thought experiments” whereby programs are written on paper, or perhaps conceptualized on paper.

When I took FORTRAN twenty years ago, my instructor had us program first in sentences, we wrote out what our program was supposed to do. Then, we took our sentences and transliterated into FORTRAN code. We sat at computer terminals, typed out our code, submitted to the mainframe, and waited for our results to be printed out on green-bar paper. But, we still had computer terminals, more than a dozen.

In Southvenia, there are no computer terminals, even. The computer programming course has 75 students, one computer, and the reality is, few people are going to get access to do any real programming. They will write out the program on paper and submit the paper for a grade. Then, after a year or two, will graduate with a BS in Computer Science from the Science and Technology University of Southvenia, and apply to graduate school in the United States having seen a computer, perhaps even touched on, but not actually having used one.

Have I contrived my example? Only with the name of the country and the name of the university. Everything else is factual. This actually happens. Not rarely, either. And, its becoming increasingly common.

To summarize, international students are arriving from the Developing World with degrees conferred by home institutions, who have little to no proficiency in their degree field – through no fault of their own, mind you – and cannot function in their chosen educational field or discipline in the United States, or Europe for that matter.

Yet, their home government is supporting them financially to achieve the degree, and to achieve the degree in a finite number of years.

On the one hand, there is no way in hell these students should even be allowed into graduate school. How can a student with a degree in Chemistry, or Physics, or Computer Science who has never touched a piece of lab equipment or even programmed a single program be allowed entry into a post-Baccalaureate program? Preventing them involves discrimination, though. Universities would be very concerned about telling a student from Bolivia,

“We will not accept your degree at face value. Bolivian higher education institutions have substantive deficiencies in technology and pedagogy.”

This smacks of elitism, neo-Colonialism, “paternalism,” and bigotry to some degree. I imagine the international incident which would ensue:

“How dare you call Southvenia deficent! Our student are some of the brightest in the world! Our test scores prove it!”

Yeah, well, your test scores are just as questionable as everything else, honestly.

On the other hand, the only way Bolivian society will ever achieve Developed Nation status is through education. Therefore, providing education to the Bolivian student is essential, for the betterment of everyone.

One way to stem the tide of immigration, and illegal immigration, is to use education to improve conditions at home. By conditions, I mean the multiplier effect education has on society. Governments run better with an educated population. Educated scientists, engineers, technicians not only have good paying jobs to support a tax base but also employ other educated, semi-educated, and low-skill labor. When job opportunities are available at home, the movement of immigrants slows. It will never be nil, by the way, unless of war or calamity. People did escape from East Germany, Soviet Russia, and from behind the Iron Curtain.

Degrees conferred outside the Developed World are of dubious quality. Higher Education administrators need to be aware of this. Though, when budgets are tighter than ever before, the thirst for money seems to be the decisive factor in every case I know of.

Who cares if the person has never seen a computer? Their government is footing the bill! We’ve got money rolling in from Berserkistan and Southvenia! Cha-ching!

The solution is above well my pay grade, I think.

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