Fort Hays State teaching, graduating thousands of students in China

Small Western Kansas school is state's only public university with such a program

There’s another side, which most Kansans will never see, to the small Fort Hays State University campus in Western Kansas.

It lies to the east — the Far East.

In addition to the 4,400 students on FHSU’s main campus in Hays, another 3,200 students are attending class and earning FHSU degrees on two campuses in China.

FHSU’s China program, which just completed its 15th academic year, started early in the transnational education trend. An increasing number of colleges now are establishing overseas degree programs, but FHSU remains the only public university in Kansas to have one.

It’s not a satellite or branch campus, because students attend classes in buildings and live in dorms at existing Chinese universities.

It’s not a study abroad program, either. Though the Chinese students can study a year in Hays if they want, they earn their entire degree in their home country.

“We label it cross-border education,” said Cindy Elliott, FHSU assistant provost for strategic partnerships.

FHSU says it is the first American university to be approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education to offer dual bachelor’s degrees under the framework of China’s Sino-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools.

FHSU has partnerships with Sias International University and Shenyang Normal University, which recruit students, house them and provide a body of coursework — taught in Chinese — that’s transferable to FHSU, Elliott said.

The rest is transplanted from Kansas.

Fort Hays State University President Mirta Martin, poses for photos with a Chinese university leader May 27, 2015, in China.

FHSU hires American faculty to live in China and teach its accredited American curriculum, all in English, Elliott said. Students must pass English competency exams and have a certain GPA to be admitted to the program and, ultimately, earn a dual degree from FHSU and their respective Chinese university.

FHSU hosts an American style commencement ceremony, complete with keynote speaker, valedictorians, walk across the stage, hugs from FHSU President Mirta Martin and handshakes from a Board of Regents member.

Last month, Regent Zoe Newton joined Martin for the ceremony.

“(Martin) definitely wanted them to feel, and I think felt herself, that they were part of the Fort Hays State family,” Newton said. “I thought that was just a great representation of Kansas, and what Kansas education is about.”

Millions in revenue

Fort Hays State makes money on its China program — about $1.5 million a year in tuition revenue, according to previous reports.

Initially the school never expected revenues to be as great as they are now, Elliott said. She said money has been used to renovate and construct buildings on the Kansas campus.

So why don’t all colleges start similar overseas programs?

“Distance learning is not for all colleges and universities,” Elliott said. “A lot of people see it as a revenue earner, but if it doesn’t fit within the mission of the university, then they shouldn’t be doing that.”

It does fit for Fort Hays State, Elliott said.

FHSU aims to be a “regional university with a global outlook” and output “forward thinking, world ready” graduates, according to its International Partnerships website.

At graduation, Newton was struck by how Chinese students seemed to operate under an assumption that they are “global citizens,” even introducing themselves by both their Chinese and American names.

“We need to compete globally,” Newton said. “They are, in other countries, preparing their young people to perform in a global market, and that entails getting to know who you’re going to be working with.”

American dream

For Chinese students, FHSU provides the prestige of an American degree, Elliott said.

“It’s hard for us to completely understand that,” Elliott said. “All around the world, an American education is revered.”

Stateside universities — including Kansas University — are ramping up efforts to recruit international students to their campuses, both for their tuition dollars and the diversity they bring.

But many foreign students could never afford to come here, Elliott said. That includes lower income and rural Chinese students in the FHSU program.

“Many of them have this dream of being able to study abroad,” Elliott said. “Many of them would love to come to America, and ideally they want to come to an Ivy League school.

“That’s their dream.”

A FHSU degree does open doors for Chinese students, Elliott said.

The China program has been a feeder for FHSU’s own graduate program in Hays, and it’s helped other students get into other American graduate schools — even a few Ivy League, she said.

The degree — and English skills and Western awareness that come with it — also helps graduates land jobs with corporations and non-governmental organizations or as entrepreneurs in China or elsewhere, she said.

Challenges, censorship

A recently publicized study by the British Council concluded that research and monitoring of transnational education programs is not keeping pace with the worldwide boom in such programs.

FHSU’s China program is not without challenges, Elliott said.

Just like home, Elliott said, FHSU has occasionally had to fail students and fire faculty.

The biggest challenges, though, are logistical.

Managing the program is made harder by China’s erratic Internet service (including the government blocking sites such as Gmail and Facebook). Also, instead of complying with just one set of regulations, FHSU programs must meet the accreditation requirements of both China and the United States.

Elliott said FHSU faced a steep learning curve especially in its first years, which is why the program started small with just 40 students. However, she said the school is now seen as a model for other university partnerships.

Censorship has not been a problem, Elliott said.

Not unlike the United States, faculty are reminded not to discuss their personal religious beliefs in the classroom but can engage in discussion with students on their own time, Elliott said. Likewise, she said, they are reminded not to post offensive content on social media, obeying the rules as “guests” of China.

In 2001, the week of a spy plane incident between China and the United States, the Chinese government asked to review syllabi, textbooks and faculty credentials for FHSU courses, Elliott said. But all “passed,” no such reviews have been requested since and the Chinese government has never requested removal of any course content.

That includes “Citizen Kane” in a cinema class and content that could be considered sensitive in classes that FHSU requires for its political science degree, such as American Government, American Constitution and Political Philosophy.

“Never do we compromise the credentials that students need to complete a degree,” Elliott said.

Fast facts on Fort Hays State University China program

• Started in fall 2000 with 40 students at Sias International University, a private university in Henan Province (affiliated with public Zhengzhou University).

• Added a program at Shenyang Normal University, a public university in Liaoning Province.

• Last semester there were 3,200 students enrolled. By comparison, the main campus in Hays has about 4,400.

• 1,185 students graduated this spring. More than 8,000 have graduated since the program’s inception.

• Five bachelor’s degrees are offered: business administration, organizational leadership, global business English, information networking and technology and political science. Graduates get dual degrees from FHSU and the Chinese university FHSU has partnered with.