04/17/2014 01:45 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Elite Education Is Affordable After All! (Just Not for Americans)

Most Americans can't afford the escalating costs of higher education or private school tuition, but that doesn't mean there isn't ample demand for our services. Chinese students are arriving in droves, checks or Platinum American Express in hand.

I was recently approached by a Chinese placement agency seeking partnership with American private schools. I receive dozens of unsolicited emails of this kind every year.

This offer was transparently opportunistic. Under the terms of this "partnership," the Chinese students would stay in Shanghai, "earn" some credits from our school and then, perhaps, come to New York City at the end of high school to enjoy the benefits of our college counseling program. There was no mention of money, and I didn't explore far enough to find how much above market tuition they were willing to pay. Based on programs at other schools, you can bet your bottom (and top) dollar that the program would be profitable.

And wrong.

A disclaimer is necessary: I don't begrudge Chinese families or students seeking opportunities they deem helpful. And I certainly concede that having international students in any school can be valuable.

But that's really a smoke screen for what is primarily a financial transaction -- the sale of American credentials to privileged international families. If it were a genuine effort to diversify on the part of American private schools, they would offer equal consideration and ample tuition assistance to interesting students from developing countries. And, of course, the benefits of diversity derive from students learning and living together, not from sharing the same college counselor or earning International Baccalaureate credits across a cultural and geographic chasm.

As a disclaimer, I admit ambivalence about the privilege enjoyed by the private school I head. We certainly charge a high tuition. Providing small, engaging classes in Manhattan is not an inexpensive enterprise. But we seek diversity by making it possible for those without privilege to attend our school and enliven our community, not by capitalizing on a lucrative foreign market.

The issue is complex. Under the banner of globalism or multiculturalism, American educational institutions are engaged in a tangled and controversial web of international arrangements. New York University President John Sexton has been both vilified (by the faculty) and lionized (by the trustees) for his Global Network University, with study centers in places like Ghana, Paris and Buenos Aires and full, degree-granting branches in Abu Dhabi and (soon) Shanghai. Are these cash cows or noble international partnerships? Perhaps both, although I trust the critics at least as much as I trust the self-serving pronouncements of the program's architects. The complexity is heightened by questions about academic freedom and human rights, especially in Abu Dhabi.

Similarly, Avenues: The World School, the latest for-profit project of Chris Whittle and Benno Schmidt (who also brought us Channel One News, and the less-than-successful Edison Schools), has a flagship school in New York City and plans to open multiple international branches in the years ahead. Will these be cash cows or noble international partnerships? Perhaps both, although... read the previous paragraph.

I don't mean to offer gratuitous critiques of either of these examples, although I have doubts that are shared by many others. But the aggregate effect of all these programs illuminates a glaring problem.

Last week the New York Times reported on the shrinking number of superb American applicants who gain admission to the most selective colleges and universities. Frequent news stories and opinion pieces point out the constant escalation of tuition and the paralyzing debt incurred by millions of hard-working American kids. It is inarguably true that children of wealth and privilege in America enjoy significant advantages over their less-privileged peers (less and less privileged by virtue of growing inequality). Now, the privileged offspring of wealthy Chinese (and others) are also invited to step onto the ladder of opportunity a few rungs above most American kids.

This is among the flaws of a free-market capitalist approach to education. Pricing is based on supply and demand. As long as there is demand, regardless of the continent of origin, suppliers will maximize revenue by charging what the market will bear.

It may be good business, but it's not good education policy.