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When Natalija Koreka decided to attend Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., she knew it was one of the best decisions she could make. After two years, her plan was to transfer to a top U.S. university to study business. Koreka stuck with her plan and is now a junior studying business at the University of Southern California.

She is not unlike many community college students who ultimately pursue a four-year degree, but one big difference between Koreka and a traditional community college student is that she traveled from Latvia, a country in Northern Europe, to attend Foothill, located in northern California.

According to the Foothill-DeAnza Educational Master Plan 2005-2015, both Foothill and DeAnza community colleges are committed to providing access to higher education for international students. “Serving international students here and abroad is an essential element of the district’s commitment to foster understanding and build global partnerships,” the report states.

However, not all California residents are in agreement that community colleges should be building global partnerships.

A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News about the recruitment of international students at San Francisco Bay Area community colleges fueled an online debate about the role of community colleges.

“This is enraging,” one reader wrote. “Why should our local colleges and universities be focusing on students who are not in our communities? We have major problems educating youth from many sectors of this valley and yet DeAnza-Foothill is focusing on foreign students?” 

Another reader wrote: “This is such a disservice to tax-paying California residents who have helped build and support these institutions. I would much rather see them doing more to recruit among the local populace.”

George Beers, dean of international education at Foothill College, says Foothill- DeAnza has been recruiting international community college students since 1989, adding that the people who responded to the Mercury News article were “misinformed.”

“The comments about us not supporting local students are naïve,” says Beers. “We have a ton of programs for local students. That is our main reason for existing.”

Both Foothill and DeAnza were recognized as one of the top 40 community college host institutions for  international students. According to the 2006 “Open Doors” report by the Institute of International Education, DeAnza College was ranked number six on the report with 2,112 international students enrolled and Foothill was ranked 12th with 1,168 international students enrolled.

“They (foreign students)are the crème de la crème,” says Judith T. Irwin, director of international programs and services for the American Association of Community Colleges. Irwin says that there are approximately 84,000 international students in community colleges in the United States and approximately 590,000 international students at all U.S. universities.

A Revenue Generator

Foothill-DeAnza has seen its number of international students increase in recent years. International students currently represent 5 percent of the nearly 45,000 students enrolled in the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District.

Darlene Culbertson, former director of international programs at Foothill College, says there was a definite decrease in the number of international students enrolling in California community colleges one year after 9/11, but over the past five years the numbers have begun to rebound. Some of the countries that Foothill and DeAnza recruit from include China, Kuwait, Japan, Malaysia and Sweden.

But some, including scholars and policy makers, are concerned community colleges are not doing enough to prepare local students, particularly low-income and minority students, to obtain an associate degree and/or transfer to a four-year university.

According to a recent report titled “Beyond the Open Door: Increasing Student Success in the California Community Colleges” from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University-Sacramento, the state’s community college system is doing a good job of admitting students, but problems persist regarding transfer and graduation rates.

“California is near the bottom of the pack, nationally, in a country that is struggling to keep pace globally, placing 46th among states in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per 100 undergraduates enrolled,” states the report.

In another Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy report titled “Rules of the Game: How State Policy Creates Barriers to Degree Completion and Impedes Student Success in the California Community Colleges,” the authors find that of the 60 percent of students who are seeking a degree at a California community college, only onefourth complete certificate degrees or transfer to a four-year university.

“If these trends continue, where very few complete, in the next couple of years the overall attainment of higher education will go down considerably,” says Dr. Miguel Ceja, assistant professor in the department of public policy and administration at CSUSacramento and a contributor to “Beyond the Open Door.”

The authors of the “Beyond the Open Door” report say it’s up to the community colleges to provide services for nontraditional students with greater work and family obligations and to send clear messages to high schools about the college readiness standards. In addition, the report states that both University of California and California State University schools can do their part as well, such as providing baccalaureate coursework on community college campuses. Furthermore, the report states that providing baccalaureate coursework is particularly beneficial to Latino students because they often do not attend four-year universities for cultural and financial reasons.

Ceja points out that indeed those most affected in regards to completion of community college certificates are Latino and Black students, with, according to the “Beyond the Open Door” report, completion rates of 18 percent and 15 percent respectively, compared to Asian and White students with completion rates of 33 percent and 27 percent respectively.

“You have native student populations that are not being successful, but yet you are getting an influx of international students,” Ceja says.

The report also focuses on the state’s growing Latino population, stating that ignoring this population of students could be detrimental to the California work force.

But Beers argues in effect that assisting the state’s neediest students and recruiting international students are not mutually exclusive. He says the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District has many programs available to minority and low-income students, such as the Extended Opportunity Program and Services, Puente for Latino students and Mfumo (“connections” in Swahili) for Black students.

In addition, Beers argues that international community college students actually help all local students because they bring in more revenue.

“They don’t look at the incredible resources we do have to support local students,” says Beers. “Many of these resources are funded by international students.”

Nevertheless, Beers says although international students generate $11 million in revenue, their recruitment is not a main focus of the community college. None of the international programs’ staff members from the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District works full-time and their goal is not to “over enroll” international students.

Beers says having international students attend community colleges is a win-win situation both for the students and the institutions. The students add diversity, while also adding to the bottom line with the higher tuition they must pay. “The only way of raising money is non-resident tuition,” says Beers.

California residents, for example, currently pay $13 per unit at the Foothill-DeAnza compared to $116 per unit for international students.

Doing More With Less

“State appropriations per full-time student at the California community college are less than 60 percent of that for students at the California State University and less than one-third that of students at the University of California,” according to the report, “Invest in Success: How Finance Policy Can Increase Student Success at California’s Community Colleges,” also published by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy.

The Foothill-DeAnza Web site states that community colleges in California continue to struggle with a severe budget crisis. And as a result, budget reductions have impacted student services and jobs at DeAnza, Foothill and many of the state’s community colleges.

However, the revenue generated through international student tuition is one way around the financial struggles that community colleges are currently facing.

“Tuition is very cheap for local students,” says Mami Kobayashi, an international student from Japan who transferred from Foothill College to San Jose State University. “In contrast, tuition is very expensive for international students, but compared to a four-year college, junior college is much cheaper.”

USC’s Koreka says that the contributions international students make are invaluable. “Americans can gain a different perspective from us,” says Koreka. “There were so many different people in my classes, and we shared so many experiences.”

Although Koreka and Kobayashi are planning to work for a year in the United States after they graduate, they both plan to return to their home countries.

However, authors of “Beyond the Open Door,” argue that California community colleges are not doing enough to educate the local students who will need jobs in California.

“California cannot continue to rely on attracting college-educated workers from other states and countries to meet the needs of its information-based economy,” say the report’s authors.

Still, Koreka says she benefited greatly from attending college in the United States and will now fulfill her dream of becoming a businesswoman in her native Latvia.

“I met a lot of people here who were nice and helpful,” says Koreka. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

–Veronica Mendoza

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