Higher education has changed continuously throughout its millennia or so of existence. Cynically, it has provided a proving ground for the wealthy to secure their roles and stations. Optimistically, it has provided a societal beacon for the creation, accumulation, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge and ideas. In toto, these goals have long run their course and the degree to which they are satisfied contributes significantly to the relative renown of a given university over time. We run as fast as we can to stay right where we are.
As we look towards the future of higher education, many things will change and many more will remain the same. Will universities as we know it dissolve, yielding to an amazing array of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? No, beyond their tendency to fall into the crispr drawer of good intentions, they lack the requisite social capital of universities to stand out on a resume. From etsy to youtube, crowd sourcing technologies have an unfortunate tendency to create few winners, perversely driving massive buy in from the remainder due to the intense visibility of said winners. Perhaps a brilliant and single minded individual possessed of undeniable talents may leverage such resources for career development, but they will unfortunately face an uphill battle against those with the proper meritocratic pedigree and buy-in to the given system. I wish them the best.
Another interesting trend is the focused coding academies and boot camps. I differentiate these from massively open online courses in that they present a more tangible bill of goods. Rather than scrapping together a portfolio of interesting and potentially useful classes, a graduate of such programs presents a known quantity. They may more readily be compared to past graduates and in turn curry reputation for an entire program. This presents a far more modern take on the trade schools of yore, specifically delivering the required talents and rigor absent the surrounding infrastructure of academia. As college debt loads show every notable signifier of a bubble and as technological obsolescence rapidly approaches many more classical trades, these are very much worth watching.
As interesting as it is to predict what may happen, it is also very important to dictate that which must not. Most significantly, we cannot let passing, idle minded, nativist narratives turn back the clock on the diversity of our academic community. There is this common myth of the immigrant stealing jobs, that the manual laborer’s value in the field may be diminished by poorly compensated immigrants, or that the international student researcher blocked a hard-working american from enrollment. The unskilled labor argument may be defeated morally by calling for fair wage and hiring practices, practically by accepting the burgeoning realities of technological unemployment. The moral arguments for permissive hiring and immigration of skilled workers are known, well stated, and received mostly upon partisan lines. Rather than waste efforts preaching to the choir or letting such arguments fall upon deaf ears, let us focus upon the selfish practicalities of retaining such students:
1. We accumulate the best and the brightest:
Meeting international students is an efficient way of granting oneself a very warped view of their home turf. Given the immeasurable hurdles in reaching and securing a place within a university overseas, we have a very strong selection bias in place for recruiting the best and the brightest that the world has to offer. There’s an old belief that a society of Einsteins could not function, that no one would dig the ditches or staff the factories. Personally, I believe such a society would simply invent technologies to solve such trivialities. We stand to lose nothing by drawing such people and giving them incentives to stay, to work, to develop technologies and industries, and to weave themselves into our national tapestry.
One lingering question of morality here is one frequently levied against both gifted education programs and special ops fighters: by concentrating talent in narrow pools, do we see more gains from promoting talented individuals or does their absence merely depress the development of their peers’ talents? I suspect the latter yet prefer the former. Still, per individual motives, newborns sign no contract proclaiming their destiny as a citizen of their birthplace. It is in all of our best interests that we not be beholden for life to the whims of misguided home regimes.
2. We get far more than what we pay for:
During the projected 5 year course of doctoral education, students work long, tireless hours on the development of new technologies and knowledge. This is often guided by the real world utility requirements of federal grants. Not only does graduate education select for the best and brightest from home and abroad, it also keeps them here for surprisingly affordable salaries. According to GlassDoor.com, graduate student assistantships in the United States pay roughly $28k per year. For this price universities get to keep the bulk of the brilliance, the papers, and the intellectual property of students for the span of a degree program.
3. We preserve our renown:
How much is a dollar worth is a simple question. How much is a bitcoin worth, not so much. How much is an American education worth though? Like most things in life, a simple metric may be that it is worth what people are willing to pay, and the ruling class across the world have shown themselves time and time again to be willing to pay top dollar. We do much to undermine our national prestige when limiting our pool of candidates and speakers by arbitrary and capricious geometries scrawled across the globe by long-dead madmen. As the children of the international elite come to american universities to receive an american education, the inevitability of nepotism dictates that their next generation of rulers will also be steeped in American culture and sympathies. This is an advantage we would be wise never to squander; Mickey Mouse has done far more for American diplomacy than any ambassador could ever dream of.
4. We sustain partnerships:
Collaboration is key to science, most of the low hanging fruit have already been picked, and world-changing discoveries may often require more specialized knowledge than can be tidily constrained within an individual mind. For those international students who return home afterwords, not only do we retain their findings and our garnered sympathies, we retain their friendship as well. Fostering the development of international students provides an efficient means of seeding our network with diverse pools of talent and access. An open line of communication between distant universities could prove the key in saving thousands of lives during an epidemic. It could also assure favorable trade and early notification of key innovations enabling the growth of more complex industries. There is nothing to be lost by knowing more people in more places.
I hope that in writing these thoughts, there be no confusion that this is anything more than a willful exploration of selfish justifications for inherently just behavior. The international community of Virginia Tech has provided some of my most treasured friendships, the strongest collaborations, and my fondest memories of my time here. Many things will undoubtedly change in the future of education and I would hesitate to claim a firmer grasp on the crystal ball than anyone else. It’s important that we remember where we came from and what we value, and moving forwards it is my most fervent hope that we continue to value the strong contributions which the international community makes to Virginia Tech every day.