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Do international dorms at community college signal a change of mission, culture?

Exterior of Philadelphia community college.
Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Starting in the spring, the Community College of Philadelphia will break ground on a construction project that has the potential to change not only the footprint of the school, but also its culture.

Now in the design phase, the Hamilton will be a 500-unit mixed-use development project that will provide student housing for the college and is aimed at attracting international students. It will include apartments, community-based retail, and on-site parking.

The development – financed, developed, and operated by Radnor Property Group LLC of Wayne – will be completed in two stages. The first will have 290 units and will open in the summer of 2018, and the remaining units are targeted to open in 2021 when the second phase is finished.

The dorms would not be exclusively for international students, according to Samuel Hirsch, CCP’s vice president for academic and student success. Local students can also apply for the housing, but the goal of building the dorms is to increase international student enrollment, making the school a part of a growing national trend of community colleges that want to attract more international students, who pay significantly more in tuition.

Hirsch confirmed that the international students that the school is trying to attract, those on F1 visas (as opposed to students who permanently reside in Philadelphia but may hold foreign passports), pay three times as much for tuition compared to local students and are not eligible for any aid.

Michael Brennan, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, is researching the internationalization of community colleges. He is also the director of international education at Hillsborough Community College in Florida and was a part of that school’s decision a few years ago to target international students. Brennan said that there are many reasons why community colleges would choose to increase international student enrollment.

“[Community colleges] recognized the value of having this incredible diversity in their classroom and their campus and their community,” said Brennan. “There was also a motivation not just to put heads on beds, but also just to kind of change the cultural atmosphere of our student housing. If you have full-time, motivated international students, for the most part with the intent to transfer to a four-year school, that’s a really good dynamic to drop into the middle of your student housing at a community college, if you manage it right.”

He added that a significant motivation for community colleges is financial. “We saw the trends. We knew that state funding to support students was declining and wouldn’t reverse. We knew that once we got through the recession, when enrollments tend to go up at community colleges, that enrollment would at least plateau, if not decline. So the F1 student did represent a revenue source.”

More community colleges are coming to the same conclusion. According to the College Board, 42 percent of all undergraduate students in the country attended community colleges in fall 2014. But community colleges only enrolled about 9 percent of the existing international student population in 2015-16, according to data from the Institute of International Education, and that 9 percent is concentrated in relatively few schools. According to Brennan and data from the Institute of International Education, 40 community colleges account for about 72 percent of total foreign student enrollment. In recent years, more community colleges have wanted to access this market.

For CCP, the barrier to this market is housing. “Being a community college, we do not currently have the housing," Hirsch said. "So students want to attend here, but when they get here, housing is an issue. So we scramble to direct them to where they might live. So issues of safety come into play, distance from the campus, those kinds of issues.”

According to a statement from CCP and Radnor Property Group, Radnor will serve as ground lessee and owner of all improvements on the site. In this role, Radnor will be responsible for 100 percent of the debt and equity financing, leasing, and operations of the completed project. The first phase of the project is estimated to cost $70 million, and the second is estimated to cost $60 million. According to the statement, the lender for the project has not yet been selected. The college is not providing any funds for the project.

Elizabeth Bolden, president of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, said, “Pennsylvania is an attractive place to study, and many international students want to come to Pennsylvania because of the high quality of our post-secondary education system. And I think that community colleges, in particular, are an attractive option for international students who are coming from countries that do not have a community college system and they’re seeking opportunity here.”

But Brennan said that his research has shown that a school needs more than a willingness to profit from higher tuition rates in order for an international student program to succeed.

“If managed right, it can be a wonderful thing," he said. "With that said, there are schools that think it’s the answer to declining enrollment and revenue shortfall. If you’re going in with that single-mindedness, then I think you’re probably in for some trouble.”

The dorms could be part of the Community College of Philadelphia’s larger strategy, but the school did not give any indication that they are increasing staff to support and integrate a significant influx of foreign students.

But regardless of how CCP plans to accommodate these students, some Philadelphia residents take issue with the basic premise of targeting international students. Although the plan may make sense financially, they say, it seems out of line with the mission to serve the local community.

Jim Richardson, 67, a resident of Philadelphia whose family has a history of attending community colleges, said, “The very idea of community college connotes lower-cost education for local students who can’t afford high tuition, plus room and board. They are commuter colleges where students can learn while living at home or living in an apartment while working and going to school part-time. I just can’t see the benefit to the community of this radical change and the loss of its original, important role. It’s a bad idea that smacks of megalomania on the part of the president, rather than continued community service.”

Richardson also argued that the shift puts the college “in direct competition with Philadelphia’s already plentiful supply of four-year institutions.” He says that is not the role of the school, because it fills a different need than four-year institutions, particularly as those institutions become more expensive.

For his part, Hirsch takes issue with the idea that the new initiative is outside of the mission of the school.

“I think the college has always had globalization as part of its mission – globalization of its curriculum, globalization of its student body with regard to ensuring that students are exposed to a broad range of students,” he said, adding that the school has had a smaller number of international students enrolled, as well as study abroad opportunities, for years. “I think it also fits the mission of serving the city of Philadelphia … the globalization not only of the college but also of the city. We are the city’s college. So I think as the city views itself in terms of the global nature of being a world-class city, I think we’re serving in that function as well.”

Richardson argued that if the issue is one of diversity and being exposed to other cultures, there are many immigrant and refugee students who already reside in Philadelphia who, if more effectively targeted themselves, would provide a more culturally varied student body and also help the college commit to serving local residents.

Hirsch said, “I don’t think it’s an ‘either/or’ issue. I think it’s both. We’re not at capacity. We have plenty of spots.”

As long as the school is not at capacity, Philadelphia students are not being turned away in favor of international students.

Bolden, of the state community colleges commission, said, “I don’t know that I would be concerned that a college is trying to fill some of their empty seats on the margins with international students. Quite honestly, those students are paying three times the tuition that a sponsored student would pay. So if the college deems that it is in their best interest to fill those seats on the margins, I don’t see a concern with that.

“We fill seats on the margins in a number of ways already. We open our classrooms to senior citizens in our community. We open them to secondary school students. So I don’t know that this is outside the norm of attempts to make sure that we’re being good stewards of public money and then providing accessible education to all those who seek it.”

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