“I am going to attend Harvard.” If I had a nickel for every time I have heard that from a scholar, especially from international scholars, I would be a rich man. Another line I hear a lot is “My recruiter is going to make sure I get into an Ivy League university.” My personal favorite though is “I will only attend a top 30 school.” When I ask what the top 30 universities are, which schools are on the list, very rarely can scholars name even a few – never mind the fact that they have not defined whether we are talking about the top 30 liberal arts universities, the top 30 large, public state universities, the top 30 national universities… I think you get the point.
Lest you think I am cold and heartless, I understand what they are saying. They want to attend an Ivy League university, Stanford, University of Chicago, Georgetown, Rice, or Massachusetts Institute of Technology among others with big names that are known around the world. These are great schools for numerous reasons, not the least of which is they accept great students. However, they may not be the right fit, academically or socially, for every scholar.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, I generally do not hear scholars talk about educational “fit” when talking about universities prior to enrollment. What degree program will they pursue? What kind of personality do they have? What are the things they are looking for in terms of size, food quality, location, support services, activities on campus or off?
But, when I talk with international students who are currently studying in the US, educational fit is a HUGE topic. Two graduate students from China, Charlie and Miriam, studying for their doctorates are at Arcadia University were shocked in their first semester in the US because their English language skills were not nearly as good as they thought. They had taken the TOEFL and scored pretty well, but they found out the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language) does not measure conversational English, or academic English – the content specific vocabulary and syntax that is specific to each academic discipline. They were both very good at analyzing grammar but struggled to order a hamburger at McDonald’s initially. Arcadia is a smaller school that has allowed Charlie and Miriam to receive personalized attention and opportunities to practice their English language skills with classmates, professors, and through various work-experience internships in their fields of study. Both students are doing very well now after a lot of very hard work and practice and have praised the support systems at Arcadia for their successes.
Another student, Sam, from Inner Mongolia, recently graduated from Drexel University with a triple major – three degrees – and a high GPA. He had spent two years in the US studying at an American high school, immersed in the academic and cultural language. Sam had the benefit of two years of studying exclusively in English before attending a university. He also had the benefit of visiting numerous universities to find the perfect one for him. Sam enrolled at Drexel because it has the degree program he desired, is located in Philadelphia with easy transportation, and had a class structure that allowed him frequent and personalized contact with his professors.
A fourth student, Jack, who came from China, recently graduated from Rosemont College – his third college in the United States because the first two universities were not the right fit. Jack had been very excited to attend Temple University when it was described by his Chinese recruiter. Temple is a great university in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. However, when Jack arrived at Temple he found that he had been placed in a dormitory with hundreds of other Chinese students. He spent the first month of the semester barely speaking English because the students he lived with all spoke Mandarin as it was more comfortable for them. But, he was not getting to practice his English and it was hurting his academic studies which was why he came to the US in the first place. He transferred to another Philadelphia area university to improve his English language skills and then ultimately transferred to Rosemont College because of its high quality academic reputation and its small size. Jack told me that he was successful at Rosemont because he had direct contact with all of his professors and he received personalized attention and help when he needed it.
All four students, Charlie, Miriam, Sam, and Jack have been successful because they have all found the right universities for their needs, the right fit for them academically. Each of these scholars is attending a high quality university, but they did not fall into the trap of believing they needed to attend a top 30 school, or an Ivy League university, or really any school just because of the name.
A 2013 study from Hong Kong, citing data compiled from the 2013 Overseas Returned Graduate Recruitment Report and university statistics found that 25% of Chinese students who attended Ivy League Universities ended up dropping out of their schools before earning their degrees. The study said that while students exhibited high academic achievement in their home country, many found it difficult to adjust and adapt to the new environment, citing problems like language barriers and differences in the education system. A separate study commissioned by the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors in 2014 found that international students may be underestimating the academic preparation expected to be on a campus and they are overestimating the availability of jobs, availability of scholarships, availability of financial aid and so forth. In short, international scholars are not finding the right fit when they are considering studying in the United States.
We are not finished with "educational fit".... Look for Part 2 of this blog post next week!