Testing, do not disturb
Credit: Morguefile photo by taliesin

A record number of foreigners are studying in America. Right now, more than 819,000 of them are enrolled in colleges and universities throughout the United States, accounting for 4 percent of the total undergraduate population.

It's a trend that's generated controversy, as some fear their presence takes away slots that could otherwise go to Americans.

In recent years, the higher education industry has embarked upon an aggressive drive to recruit these students. Each year, admissions officials are sent to various countries throughout the world, in an effort to find the best candidates.

The desire to attract foreigners goes beyond the need to increase campus diversity, although that's usually the reason cited.

Foreign students are very helpful for increasing revenue. The average American family needs a lot of institutional aid in order to afford the $25,000 to $60,000 cost of attendance, which factors in tuition, plus room and board.

However, overseas students tend to come from relatively wealthy families who can foot the entire bill. Also, public universities charge higher tuition for students coming from out of state or from out of the country.

It's been widely reported that entrance requirements for foreigners are not particularly stringent, and that even fraudulent applications sometimes slip through.

Foreign students often have difficulty with the SAT exam, used by colleges to select the most academically gifted. But College Board, which administers the test, has announced it will roll out a new version in the spring of 2016. (Until then, the current version will be used.)

Most observers seem to believe this will help foreign applicants gain admittance. Critics, though, say the new test will be watered down.

Big Changes for 2016 SAT

College Board has announced the upcoming test will include sweeping changes. It will still contain three sections, a reading and writing component, as well as a mathematics test. But the format will be much different and the essay will be optional.

Most of the nation's colleges, especially the more selective ones, require either this test, or a similar one known as the ACT. But hundreds of schools are now "test optional."

The revisions are supposedly designed to cut down on the amount of ways students can now game the test. Detractors have long point out that it discriminates against lower-income students, who cannot afford pricey SAT prep courses. Because so much importance is placed upon this exam, SAT-prep has become a thriving industry.

One College Board official was quoted as saying that students will now have to "justify" their responses, instead of just picking the right answer.

Changes in Scoring the SAT

The current SAT scale ranges as high as 2,400, the possible total for all three sections. (Very few students achieve a perfect score.) The revised test will lower this to 1600 and only reading and math will be included. The optional essay will be calculated in a different way.

In a move that seems to level the playing field for lower-income students, everyone will be able to access free test prep materials from Khan University, a large open-source education site.

This, conceivably, has the potential to help everyone, foreigners included. It appears as if the newly designed test will have less emphasis on esoteric English vocabulary words, sometimes a trip-wire even for Americans.

In some ways, the exam seems as if it's getting easier. Some believe that's partly due to increased competition with the ACT, and not to accommodate foreign applicants. Students who don't score well on one test often use the other.

Other impending changes include:

  • A shorter test time. The new exam will take only about three hours to complete the first two sections, with another 50 minutes for the optional essay.
  • The best preparation will now be to take rigorous high school courses.
  • Wrong answers will no longer lower the overall score.

SAT Test Very Popular Overseas

Regardless of the upcoming changes, the SAT has become increasingly popular in China and in other countries with a burgeoning supply of students hoping to come to America.

Along with the high stakes, as this test will make or break admissions decisions, comes the temptation to cheat. In 2013, there was a countrywide cancellation of the SAT after it came to light that some of the test prep centers there had gained access to the questions that would be asked, and were passing this information along to students.

It is hoped the newly revamped test will reduce the likelihood of similar incidents.