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2017-09-10 17:21
By Walt Gardner



When universities in Korea increased tuition fees by 8 percent for international students, the decision was immediately attacked as discriminatory. In quick succession, the hike was defended as necessary to pay for the additional cost of support services and scholarships.

A similar controversy arose in the U.S. when the University of California system charged out-of-state students close to $30,000 more for their education each year than state residents. The move was a transparent attempt to boost revenue because non-resident students need no more services.

What’s the truth? In both cases, the larger question is whether admitting higher-paying students is fair. Why should students who are in a position to pay more be able to buy themselves a place? Enrollment is not supposed to be for sale to the highest bidder.

There is much truth to this claim. In a pure meritocracy, admission should be based strictly on academic qualifications. But universities are increasingly being run like businesses. That means by limiting the number of international or out-of-state students, respectively, universities run the risk of a shortfall in their operating budgets.

Despite the financial argument, the University of California finally yielded to pressure and placed a 20 percent systemwide limit on nonresident undergraduates. This cap followed in the wake of a threat by California lawmakers to hold back $18.5 million.

A more positive way of addressing the problem in Korea is to amend the Higher Education Act that limits tuition increases to 1.5 percent to apply to all students, regardless of their origin. At present, the law exempts international students.

A more dramatic strategy would be to make tuition free for all students in public colleges and universities. New York State rolled out a plan last spring that has been heralded as a model for other states. Under the Excelsior Scholarship, the cost of a degree from a four-year state college or university would be cut by about $26,000 for an eligible family. (The current cost is about $83,000 for tuition, fees, and room and board.)

Korea could modify this plan to meet its unique needs by establishing certain terms and conditions. For example, students must come from families earning less than a stipulated amount and must attend school full-time and graduate on time. Students who don’t complete 30 credits over two semesters would lose their grant award for the second semester and be responsible for taking out loans to pay back what they owe.

International students, in particular, would have to commit to living and working in Korea after they graduate for as many years as they receive the scholarship. If they leave before then, the grant would turn into a loan. After all, they’ve been the beneficiary of a solid Korean education, for which they owe something in return.

There is never going to be a solution that will please everyone. But Korea can profit from the talent of international students while defending itself against charges of discrimination by instituting reasonable changes. The key is to balance the benefits to the country with the needs of students.


Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S. Write to walt.gard376@gmail.com.


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