Why is the U of M College of Design taking in so many foreign students?


When I reported recently on declining graduate-school enrollment at the University of Minnesota, I asked College of Design Dean Tom Fisher about another phenomena I’d found: big increases in the enrollment of foreign students.

His school saw some of the biggest jumps at the U, posting a 209 percent increase over the past five years or so. Once foreigners made up 6.7 percent of the student body. Now they’re almost 23 percent.

That’s extreme. When I asked him what was going on, he had one word for me: China.

But first he gave me some reasons for the sagging American enrollment:


“Our fields were hit pretty hard by the recession. And there were some reports right after the recession that suggested, ‘Don’t go into these fields.’ And I think that has had some impact.

But the irony of that is that our fields are now growing among the fastest in terms of job opportunities. There’s always a time lag, where guidance counselors and information out there are often lagging behind. So I think we’re still in the backtow of that recession and the perception that these are fields where there isn’t a lot of job growth — when just the opposite is happening.

Also, the economy is picking up, and we’re finding that students who had gone to grad school to weather out the recession are now able to find jobs. And so there are fewer of them applying.

And in a digital world, people are applying to more places. At the grad level, students apply to a lot of places — first of all, to see which ones they get into, and to see which ones can offer them [financial] support. …

Design also doesn’t have the federal funding that, say, the hard sciences do.

“That is a challenge for us. We do not have the big National Science Foundation and [National Institute of Health] grants that a lot of our science colleagues use to support their graduate students.”

Meanwhile, big happenings in China have poured increasing numbers of students into the U.S., prompting Fisher to enroll ever greater numbers of them to make up for declining domestic numbers.

It’s not just the money they pay, he said:

“[China] is where the applications are coming from.”

Fisher said the dean of the University of Southern California design school told him the department there is 75-80 percent Chinese, “so we’re seeing some of the private schools becoming highly dependent on foreign students.”

Why China?

Fisher said its plan to move 300 million people to cities has already created demand for experts in urbanization — something his department can supply:

“That’s one of things we do in this college. We deal with urbanization and the design of cities. This is where the action is and activity is globally — countries like China and India. And getting an American degree to help these countries engage in this rapid urbanization is something we’re in the midst of right now.”

Fisher said the shifting demographics has made the design field more international — and rather turbulent:

“We’ve been going through this incredible trough, and now we’re going through an incredible boom. It has become a global profession. And even graduates working here in Minneapolis are almost certainly going to be working on projects in China and India and somewhere else around the globe.”