The international student outcry over costly counseling

At only 17 years old, Alejandro Diaz de la Torre decided to move from his home in Madrid, Spain, to the U.S. As the son of a diplomat, he has lived in many different countries in his life, but decided that Los Angeles is where he would be pursuing his education. After spending one year at Kaplan, an English language school in Westwood, Diaz de la Torre decided that his English was strong enough to begin his higher education, and he enrolled at Santa Monica College.

"I chose SMC because I wanted to start out at a community college, and I had heard great things about the school," he said.

While SMC has a high population of international students, some recent developments regarding classes recommended to or required of these students has left them questioning whether the school has their best interests in mind and whether counselors are being completely open about all their options.

Prior to completing enrollment for their first semester at SMC, international students are required to take a math assessment test, and the outcome of that test determines what level of math the student will be placed into. Students who major in Liberal Arts or any of the Social Sciences, for example, need to pass a college level math class in order to be eligible for transfer.

UCLA Extension, a continuing higher education provider, offers a college level math class called Introduction to Statistical Reasoning XL 10, which is equivalent to Math 54 at SMC, and satisfies the requirements for transfer without the need of any prerequisites. The class was at one point even taught at SMC’s Bundy Campus via UCLA.

Diaz de la Torre, who was a liberal arts major at SMC, placed into a math class below the required level for transfer, which resulted in him being forced to pass two math classes to become eligible.

“The only Cs I ever received while attending SMC were in my math classes,” he said. ”They contributed to lowering my GPA a lot.”

In addition to adding time and pressure, the price per unit is significantly higher at SMC than it is at UCLA Extension.

Currently, the cost per unit at SMC for an international student is $335. Because the math classes that satisfy the requirements for transfer are usually three units, international students have to pay $1,005 to enroll in one of these classes, compared to UCLA Extension’s three unit STATS XL 10 being priced at $765. The tuition price at SMC does not include AS, student ID, health, parking, and, for international students, mandatory insurance fees which cost $600 per semester.

After all of these fees, and due to a minimum unit completion requirement of 12 units per semester (a requirement for International students in order to maintain a valid F-1 Visa status), your average international student's sum minimum total cost is over $9000 per year at SMC — a high cost considering students on an F-1 visa are not allowed to work outside their own campus.

Because of this, an increasing number of students are encouraging counselors to advise students to take the UCLA Extension course, as it may help them save money.

“If international students know that this is an option, they can save a lot of money and possibly avoid lowering their GPA so drastically,” Diaz de la Torre said.

When asked why new students at SMC were mostly unaware of this option, former SMC transfer student Priscilla Darosa said, “That is like Coca Cola recommending buying Pepsi if the store is out of Coke. Of course [SMC] won’t promote [STATS XL 10].”

When asked how she finally found out about the course, Darosa said, “A student told me. Then I asked around about it, and then [asked international] counseling and they [confirmed it]. Probably only because I had talked to others before them.”

Mert Kucukali, an international student from Turkey, was also recommended the course by a friend.

“When I talked to a counselor about this class," Kucukali said, "I was told that the class was really hard and that it would be a time consuming process to go through.”

Despite the counselor's advice, Kucukali decided to enroll in the class and received an A.

Diaz de la Torre said, “Even when I transferred to Pepperdine University and took the same statistics class that I took at SMC, I received an A. I find that to be kind of ridiculous.”

Another international student who placed low on her math assessment test is Pelin Oezan from Sweden. She was faced with having to take four math classes at SMC to be eligible for receiving an AA degree.

The widespread unawareness of SMC's international students prevails because the information about the Extension course is only spread through word of mouth. But now an increasing number of them are reaching out in hopes that the counselors at the IECC will also begin spreading the word.

In an email to The Corsair, Gail Fukuhara, Faculty Program Leader at the International Education Counseling Center (IECC), wrote, "We prefer students take their courses at SMC when available, since SMC provided them with the necessary documents to bring them into the U.S. with the intent to study full-time at our school. However, we understand that there are situations where students would find it more conducive to take it elsewhere."

In addition to the math at SMC, international students are expressing concern about another course they are being told is a requirement that, according to contradictory evidence, is not in fact a requirement.

According to the Santa Monica College International Students Admissions Application Requirements found online, it is directly stated that new F-1 students are "required to enroll in the course Counseling 11 - 'Orientation to Higher Education.'" The description for this course states that it “introduces higher education and the Master Plan for higher education in California.”

The application found online lists the Counseling 11 course as "required."
The application found online lists the Counseling 11 course as "required."

Despite it being a stated requirement on the application, when students view any of the course catalogs currently available online, it is listed as only "recommended for F-1 Visa Students."

The same course in the official catalog lists Counseling 11 as "highly recommended."
The same course in the official catalog lists Counseling 11 as "highly recommended."

During one of the introduction seminars that are held for newly admitted international students, guidance counselors assist the students in enrolling in classes.

Diaz de la Torre said that during the seminar he attended, students were told that Counseling 11 is a requirement for all international students. He said, “Because I was told it was a requirement, I didn't think about it much.”

He enrolled in the class and didn't find out until later that, though the course is transferable, it is not a requirement for transfer.

Sanna Gunnarsson, a former student at SMC, was also told to enroll in the course at the introduction seminar, but she decided not to after she found out it was not required for her major. When asked how she found out, she said, "Through friends and other students."

Oezan, who was also told she had to take the course, said, “The counselor [at the seminar] said it was a requirement, but I didn't enroll in it because I thought it was a waste of money. A student told me that SMC wants international students to take it, but that in reality it's only a recommendation.”

"We have always made it a requirement for our new F-1 students," Fukuhara said about the counseling course. "In the past, before online enrollment existed, we could more easily enforce this policy as our International Admissions staff enrolled students into their classes. Since online enrollment began, while the course is required and strongly recommended, we rely on students to enroll into this class on their own as a condition of their admissions. We realize though that some students have not abided by what they had signed and agreed to."

Two math classes and a one-unit counseling class may not sound like much to the ordinary American college student, but with the high per-unit-price for an international student at SMC, the sum cost of these classes is $2,345. While the high cost of tuition is something that international students are aware of before they sign up, that doesn't mean that throwing away money is a luxury they can afford.