University College courts foreign students in their own land

December 23, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

The University of Maryland's University College, seeing its worldwide education programs threatened by a dramatic reduction of U.S. troops abroad, has begun marketing itself to foreign students on their own turf.

The continuing education arm of the state's public university system has quietly sent out notices to high schools here and abroad announcing the opening in September of a four-year college in a small town in Germany. A campus in Thailand could be next.

Because of a near stranglehold on military education contracts abroad, University College is the largest purveyor of American higher education outside the United States.

The reshaping of its offerings away from the U.S. military population it has served for more than 40 years in Europe and Asia comes amid fierce competition by U.S. and European colleges for the worldwide higher education market.

"It is the one place where we do not have a trade deficit," said Marjorie Peace Lenn, an authority on international education and the executive director of a new Washington association to oversee the quality of U.S. colleges abroad.

"It is one of our best products -- one of the world's best products," she said.

Dr. Lenn, whose organization is cataloging the expansion of U.S. colleges in the world market, said the export of higher education will continue far into the future. That is especially true in countries with thriving economies and a merchant class that wants its children to learn the language and culture of commerce.

In large part, the demand reflects the high esteem with which the U.S. system of higher education is viewed, she said.

More foreigners study in U.S. colleges than any other country, and many more would do so but for the high cost of traveling to and living in the United States.

Until about five years ago, the bulk of the 1,000 or so U.S. programs around the world were designed mainly for American undergraduate students who wanted to study for a year in a foreign country. And until now, Americans have stayed away from studying abroad longer than a year because credits are not transferable and because the system is so different.

Now, however, programs such as those by University College are being designed so that U.S. students can earn their degrees entirely on foreign soil, an advantage for those studying the language and culture of the country where the campus is based.

"There is increasing interest around the world in the fact that people need to understand cultures other than their own," said Benjamin T. Massey, president of University College.

"All curricula are trying to incorporate the global community, and this is an opportunity we think students in the [Maryland] system ought to have, namely, to study in different parts of the world and to take subjects related to that area."

In Maryland and abroad, University College is self-supporting, meaning that student tuition and income from military contracts pay the full cost of education. The college's fiscal 1992 budget, for both its foreign and domestic operations, is $84.5 million.

In addition to a vast network of programs in Maryland that accommodate some 14,400 students, the college operates baccalaureate programs on or near military bases in 22 countries and holds the bulk of overseas military education contracts. Its -- programs date to 1949, when the U.S. government first provided educational benefits for occupation troops helping to rebuild Europe after World War II.

More than 25,000 military personnel and their dependents enrolled in courses this year. Enrollment remained essentially the same as last year despite a temporary drop of 35 percent during the Persian Gulf war.

But long-term declines are anticipated.

The U.S. Department of Defense has plans to reduce troops in Europe by nearly half, to 195,000, by 1995. The 120,000 troops in Asia are expected to drop by between 14,000 and 15,000 in the next five years.

The new University College campus in Schwabisch Gmund, Germany, to open next fall, was set up with the cooperation of local authorities, who provided space. The undergraduate program will feature courses in German language and culture, as well as business and other subjects for students wanting to specialize in the European Economic Community.

The Schwabisch Gmund campus is but one of a growing number of branch campuses operated by U.S. colleges and universities in Europe and Asia. University College officials are negotiating with officials in Bangkok to open a four-year school there, initially to serve 200 students.

In the past 24 months, U.S. colleges have opened 35 branch campuses in Japan. That compares to only one in 1981. In Thailand, local law was recently amended to permit foreign campuses to set up shop for the first time. For years, Malaysia has invited U.S. educators to offer programs.

In most cases, the U.S. colleges are sponsored by local entrepreneurs, universities or local governments. Often, the local governments provide the facilities, and student tuition pays faculty salaries and other costs of education.

"There are several reasons for the growth, including the general trend toward internationalization and people's increasing interest in job opportunities abroad," said Barbara Turlington, director of international programs for the American Council on Education.

Another reason is the possibility of making a profit, she said, but the return is often slight.

So far, the campuses are being targeted in countries in Europe and Asia where a high enough population of students can pay their own way. Overseas tuition is expensive -- $9,250 for a full year in Germany, compared with about $3,800 for the same period in Maryland.

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