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Extreme Distance Learning

Program allows Chinese to get an American education without leaving their homeland. The payoffs can be high, but the colleges' reputations can be at stake.


BEIJING — Shu Yang is a proud alumna of the University of Colorado at Denver. An economics major, she graduated at the top of her class and received her diploma last month.

But ask her to identify Denver on a map and Shu draws a blank. Mention the Broncos and she shakes her head. She has no idea who Denver's mayor is. In fact, what she knows of the entire state of Colorado boils down to four words: "They have mountains there."

A big reason for Shu's lack of knowledge is that she has never actually set foot in the Centennial State--or any other part of the U.S., for that matter.

Despite her having nailed a 3.83 grade point average in earning her diploma from CU Denver, Colorado is about as familiar to Shu as the moon, and seemingly just as far away.

She got her degree through a pioneering program here that allows Chinese students to study for and attain a four-year undergraduate degree from CU Denver without ever leaving China.

The students attend classes taught by American and Chinese professors, use English-language textbooks and fulfill the same academic requirements as their counterparts in Denver, for about the same cost that Colorado-based students pay.

The program is unusual--but not unique. Globalization has hit the world of higher education, and populous China, long eyed by businesses as the Holy Grail of consumer markets, is beginning to receive some of the same kind of attention from American academia.

Two U.S. institutions, CU Denver and a Kansas college, already have set up shop in China to confer bachelor's degrees, and other campuses are exploring the idea. More than a dozen American universities allow Chinese students to earn master's degrees in such fields as hotel management, law and nursing without leaving their homeland.

Institutions such as these are increasingly knocking on China's doors in hopes of enhancing their reach and reputation beyond American shores, keeping one step ahead of the competition and adding cash to their coffers.

What they find is a land where the huge demand for higher education far outstrips supply and where a growing number of students have the drive and wherewithal to pursue--and pay for--an American college degree, which they see as a ticket to success because of its cachet.

But the colleges also find an alien environment that has confounded even the savviest commercial businesses from around the world, a setting where cultural barriers, different rules and their own poor planning can compromise the education they promise to deliver.

The payoffs can be high--more tuition receipts, healthier enrollment figures--but so can the stakes: the colleges' own reputations and integrity.

"The worst thing we could do here is give degrees to students who then go out and embarrass the university because they're not qualified," said Cheryl Reighter, a CU Denver anthropologist and former Beijing-based coordinator of the school's program in China.

The many educational exchanges between the U.S. and China have long constituted one of the more stable elements in the two countries' relationship. About 54,000 Chinese students--the most from any single foreign country--live in the U.S., most of them doing postgraduate work, according to the U.S. government.

But in recent years, the Chinese government has relaxed its restrictions on U.S. universities doing business in China. American MBA programs, offered by institutions such as Rutgers University, have become commonplace here and attract hundreds of students.

The universities say it makes good sense to target young people in a rising power like China who are well placed to become political leaders and captains of industry, especially as the world grows more tightly interwoven through technology and trade.

"Many of our industrial sponsors of the university, the hiring companies, have become globalized," said Jun Ni of the University of Michigan, which just started a program allowing students at Jiaotong University in Shanghai to receive master's degrees in engineering from Michigan. "And they like to see students who have the same global experience."

The last, vast frontier for American universities lies in providing Chinese students not just professional and specialized graduate degrees but undergraduate education. Universities from other countries, such as Canada and Australia, are setting up undergraduate programs here as well.

The challenges of such endeavors are daunting: how to ensure that standards are upheld, that students have a command of English adequate for their classes, that qualified teachers are available and that a sufficient variety of courses is offered so that students can receive the kind of broad liberal arts education that American colleges pride themselves on providing.

Those are all problems that have bedeviled both the CU Denver and Kansas programs, which offer full bachelor's degrees that the universities insist are as bona fide as the ones attained by students at home.

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