Constructing Student Mobility: How Universities Recruit Students and Shape Pathways between Berkeley and Seoul

Image of Constructing Student Mobility: How Universities Recruit Students and Shape Pathways between Berkeley and Seoul
Release Date: 
April 4, 2023
The MIT Press
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"For [international students] are, indeed, commodities in a larger academic capitalist system that has grown to depend on them for its survival." 

Constructing Student Mobility explores how largely undergraduate students flow between South Korea and the United States with an emphasis on two major universitie—University of California Berkeley (UCB) and Yonsei University. It takes a novel approach in the study of international students. Rather than focusing on student-centric factors of motivations, goals, and financials, its analytical lens is institutional and cultural. Specifically, Kim asks how universities create opportunity structures and barriers to the recruitment and retention of international students. Those structural features are, of course, reflection of an organizational culture that more deeply undergirds a university and its values and practices. 

Kim’s focus is on the ever-shifting political economy of higher education. Under conditions of better state funding, public research institutions in the U.S. were keen on recruiting highly competitive international graduate students into their programs. State funding has declined markedly over the last 30 years, a trend punctuated by tectonic events like the 2008 Great Recession that devastated state budgets, as well as demographic declines that constrict the domestic undergraduate pipeline. Though she does not touch on this point, state legislatures find it easy and convenient to cut university budgets because the shortfalls can, hypothetically, be made up with tuition and fee hikes. Of course, when public universities do this, states often punish them and exhort them to do more with less.

It is under these shifting economic conditions that universities set their sights on recruiting larger numbers of foreign undergraduates who would, hypothetically, pay full international tuition rates to make up for budget cuts and declining domestic enrollment. As she astutely notes, the reorientation from international graduate students to undergraduates is a pivot from quality to commodity in the academic capitalist system.

South Korean students, for their part, also find creative ways to get into UCB through the highly integrated California higher education system. For example, those students who might not qualify to enter UCB as freshmen may opt to go to a community college as a pipeline into UCB. As she notes, these kinds of strategies are often deployed by international recruitment agents in South Korea. These various paths also create different identity footprints. South Korean students who enter UCB as freshman look down upon transfer students. Transfer students, on the other hand, can slip their Koreanness by emphasizing their transfer status. This is a fascinating identity dynamic as described by Kim.

When she turns her attention to Yonsei University other ironic twists emerge in Kim’s analysis of the world of international students. Yonsei was an innovator in the creation of an American-style liberal arts, humanities-driven, English-language college with the greater university. The idea was that it would attract a broad array of international students—a “build it and they will come” model. They did not come. Strikingly, it was South Korean students who showed up to get this immersion experience in an international education model without having to leave home and, yet, ready themselves as global citizens.

In yet another interesting turn, Yonsei also targets “transnational” South Koreans as distinct from “diasporic” South Koreans. The former are seen as world travelers who may want to reconnect with home, while continuing to hone their global skills. Tellingly the students in the greater Yonsei community see their counterparts in the American-style college as different, more cosmopolitan, and globally oriented. For their part, the cosmopolitans mark themselves as different by fluidly code switching between English and Korean.

All this belies the fact that South Korean students face a truncated set of higher educational options. They can go through the rigorous and highly rigid testing system for entry into a South Korean university. Or they can opt for an alternative admissions path that takes into account their entire educational and extracurricular background. Both are hard and expensive. As Kim notes, this might make studying abroad or diverting into the American-style college in South Korea seem like a better, easier option. But her point is well taken that their options are limited and conditioned by all manner of contingency.

At the heart of South Korean international educational migration is the education agent/broker. They are seemingly everywhere—arcing across a spectrum of institutions including high schools, private language schools, brokerage firms, and the like. From my own experience working in international recruiting in South Korea—it is an unregulated, cutthroat industry that often experiences marked disruption (think Covid-19), and sometimes falls short of the ethical margins of best practices. American university recruiting efforts commonly work with these various agents and operate under a quasi-regulated, but highly imperfect, system.

Taken as a whole, all these different cohabiting institutions effectively keep the global student supply chain flowing with educational migrants. As Kim underscores, it is an academic capitalist system in which students are commoditized and processed.

Constructing Student Mobility focuses on elite institutions and the pathways into them. This is only one layer of an incredibly diverse and complicated system in which all manner of higher educational institutions in the U.S. are attempting to recruit internationally. Keep in mind that while Korean students recognize UCB as an important, prestigious institution, the vast majority of America’s colleges and universities are veritable black boxes of unknown quality and unknown places. It is altogether one thing to recruit students to California’s Bay Area and another to the vastness of flyover America.

It is often the less competitive international students who land in the lower rungs of the American university prestige hierarchy, which presents its own set of challenges in helping them to succeed. Much like the community college strategy to bounce into UCB, many of these recruits seek to bounce to higher prestige institutions as soon as possible. The great global student supply chain, then, continues its churn.

It is critical to remember that American and international higher education institutions are marked by breathtaking diversity: rural or urban, public or private, secular or religious, research or teaching focused, and the list goes on. Kim has shown us through her comparative study of elite institutions that student entry and experience therein is a highly structured process as constructed by those institutions. Students have relatively limited choice in how they are inserted into the process. And they are processed. For they are, indeed, commodities in a larger academic capitalist system that has grown to depend on them for its survival.