Among the coping mechanisms used by public colleges and universities with declining support from state legislatures is to boost the number of students paying hefty out-of-state tuitions. But that can depress “selectivity” statistics as schools compete for wealthy but not necessarily well-qualified out-of-staters. So the way out for an increasing number of colleges has been to go heavy in recruiting or admitting international students, who not only pay full out-of-state tuitions but sometimes additional fees.

This is not the virtuous circle it might appear to be, explains Paul Stephens in the September-October issue of the Washington Monthly. Rapidly increasing numbers of international students, particularly from China, are beginning to displace in-state student opportunities and create poorly integrated ghettoes that detract from a cosmopolitan atmosphere as much as they add to it, while enriching middle-man “recruitment” agencies with questionable standards and ethics. And a backlash is developing in some states.

Calls to recalibrate the enrollment strategy have already begun in states like Washington and California, and while the reactions elsewhere have been more muted, that may change as the budgetary problems in the state legislatures become less dire. Advocating for fewer international students may seem shortsighted or populist to some, but the eagerness of universities to cash in on the global value of American higher education without weighing the consequences seems equally shortsighted, ignoring the long-standing bargain inherent in public education.

If public universities are going to continue to enroll the increasing numbers of students from around the world who are willing to pay top dollar for an American degree, they would do well to remember what is bringing those students here in the first place: widely respected, quality institutions. By improving and regulating the international recruiting and admissions process, expanding enrollment rather than displacing in-state residents, and taking on smaller numbers of international students from a more diverse pool of countries, universities would help to ensure that U.S. higher education remains the envy of the world.

Stephens’ account addresses an important if often-ignored element of the cost-quality dynamics affecting U.S. higher education. Check it out.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.