Globalization -- What It Means for Colleges and Students

Colleges are responding to growing student demand for building international experiences into their education.
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In the late nineteenth century, U.S. colleges and universities had to respond to a new German invention called graduate education, and the choices they made continue to define their identity. Harvard, for example, decided to embrace graduate education across the board, from PhDs to medicine and business, and went on to become an all-inclusive university. Princeton, on the other hand, stayed on the graduate-level sidelines and to this day has only modest graduate and professional programs. Two universities -- Clark and Johns Hopkins -- were born as graduate-only institutions.

Today's equivalent of the nineteenth-century German challenge is globalization. How each of the country's 2,200 four-year colleges and universities chooses to confront the fact that higher education can no longer be confined within national borders will shape their future identities.

As with the earlier challenge, universities are making very different choices, and the decisions they make are relevant to college-bound high school seniors looking for a school that will prepare them to take their place in a global environment.

When it comes to global ambitions, New York University is undoubtedly the most ambitious. NYU opened an undergraduate campus in Abu Dhabi and is building another one in Shanghai. Though tight-lipped about its strategic plans, NYU clearly wants to have a global academic presence -- let's call it the Starbucks of higher education.

Duke University already has a medical facility in Singapore and is constructing a new campus in Kunshan, located outside Shanghai, as part of its aspirations to be a "globally networked university." With a new campus in Kigali, Rwanda, Carnegie Mellon expects to become the first U.S. research university to offer degree programs in Africa. Yale will open a new liberal arts college in the fall of 2013 in partnership with the National University of Singapore.

Setting up a new campus on foreign soil is, of course, only one way to deal with the challenge of globalization. Cornell University has teamed up with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology as part of its bid to build an "applied science campus" on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. Hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities have negotiated partnerships with universities in other countries to run particular programs. A good description of the many options can be found in Ben Wildavsky's readable book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (Princeton University Press).

For faculty members, globalization is old stuff. An academic researcher today is just as likely to work with a colleague halfway around the world as she is to team up with someone down the hall. Ideas are as oblivious to national borders as hip-hop, smartphone apps or pork belly futures.

So what does all this talk of globalization mean for students? As editor of the Fiske Guide to Colleges for the last 30 years, I've noted that colleges and students alike are showing more interest in globalization in two important ways.

The first has to do with the importance of diversity. Given the changing nature of the global workplace, students are seeking educational environments in which they will have opportunities to work elbow to elbow with persons from very different backgrounds, including those from other countries and cultures. Responding to these demands, almost all of the 300-plus schools in the Fiske Guide have been increasing the number of foreign nationals in their undergraduate bodies. (The other attraction of foreign students, of course, is that many of them bring hard currency.)

Some universities have been at this for a long time. The University of Southern California, with 8,615 international students, has traditionally topped the list in terms of numbers, followed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne (7,991) and, you guessed it, NYU (7,988). But some smaller schools are also notable. Mount Holyoke College has nearly 600 international students in a student body of 2,300.

The second reason has to do with study-abroad opportunities. It is hard for me to conceive of going through four years of college these days without trying to spend at least some time in a foreign setting. I'm not talking "tourism" with a thin academic veneer. I'm talking about putting yourself in a situation where you can peel away at least a layer or two of another culture and come to appreciate -- and respect -- the fact that persons from other countries think differently than we do and have very different values.

Once again, colleges are responding to growing student demand for building international experiences into their education. These opportunities range from short-term vacation or January term trips, where you take along your own professors, to semester- or year-long programs, where you take the deep plunge into the academic life of a foreign university and study alongside students from around the world.

Finances, of course, are always a consideration, but a growing number of colleges will let you study abroad at the same cost as you would pay at home -- or even less -- and many offer financial aid, as well. Until recently, it has been difficult for students in the sciences or engineering, with rigidly sequenced course requirements, to spend time abroad, but even this is changing. Georgia Tech, for instance, sends student overseas during the summer.

Then, of course, why not do your entire four years abroad? Fiske Guide to Colleges began adding write-ups on the leading Canadian schools a decade ago and then some from Great Britain, on the grounds that these English-speaking programs offer the equivalent of an education from an Ivy or flagship public university at a much lower cost. Who is to dispute the words of an American at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who touted the virtues of studying in an international context and having "friends to crash with all over the world"?

Edward B. Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, is author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges (Sourcebooks) and numerous other books on college admissions.

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