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Growing Number of U.S. Students Seeking Higher Education in Mexico

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On most days San Diego High School graduates Rebeca Yanez and Arturo Vasquez are carpooling by 7 a.m. to make it to class on time across the border in Tijuana. As the two English-speaking business majors approach the border, there’s barely a line. That’s how it is on most days, and Yanez usually makes the trip in half an hour — but not always.

“It’s not that hard. It’s sometimes kind of stressful, because of the problems at the border,” Yanez said. “Sometimes I’d get a text saying they’re closing the border. Or, oh, there’s a lot of traffic. And I’d say, ‘Oh! I need to get to school,’ it’s just little moments like that. But it’s been pretty good so far.”

Yanez and Vasquez are among a growing number of U.S. students crossing into Mexico to pursue college degrees at CETYS, a private university in Baja California. In addition to Tijuana, it has campuses in Mexicali, across from Calexico and in Ensenada along the Baja coast.

Rebecca Yanez, 19, commutes daily to the CETYS campus in Tijuana. She works afternoons back in San Diego as a swim instructor. (Max Rivlin-Nadler/KPBS)

After the 2008 financial crisis in the U.S., California began cutting support for its state universities. To make up for the financial loss, those universities began to increase tuition. It was during that time that administrators at CETYs began noticing an uptick in their number of U.S. students.

There are currently 337 students at CETYS who graduated from Southern California high schools. In 2010, that number was only 50.

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“Historically we’ve had, on and off, families with some connections to Mexico,” said CETYS President Fernando León García. “However, as a result of some complications within California regarding choice, cost, accessibility, it all of a sudden became a popular and increasingly frequent incidence.”

In 2012, CETYS became the only university outside the United States to get accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the same accreditation held by the California State University system.

“If you have accreditation, then you have a certain amount of quality that people look for,” García said.

At just under $12,000 a year, tuition at CETYS is more expensive than at a state school in California, but there is no requirement that students live on campus their first year. Over the past decade, several state schools in California have phased in that requirement, which makes them less affordable for many students.

Last year, the university launched a business program that’s taught in English, the first of its kind in Baja.

According to school administrators, about 20% of CETYS graduates go on to work for nearby companies.

“We are closely and inextricably linked to multinationals. You can see around the campus,” García said. “There’s one right across the street and some others a few blocks from here. So collaboration with multinational industry, and, therefore, employability are all things that play a part in students’ decision to come here.”

KQED's border coverage

Vasquez and Yanez dealt with some pushback from friends and family when they decided to study in Mexico.

Vasquez began at Mesa Community College in San Diego, but transferred to CETYS after being attracted to its business program. His parents didn’t want him to transfer.

“Their response was like, well, we already live in San Diego, why would you not study here? You already know the system, you’ve been here practically your whole life,” he said.

Yanez’s high school friends were shocked when she told them of her decision. “At first they were like, 'Why? What’s different over there? Is it really better?' And, at first, one of my top things, was that it was cheaper. It’s going to be cheaper,” she said.

The two students plan to work in the border region, where they hope their cross-border experience at CETYS will give them an advantage.

Lorena Serrano is a fifth-generation resident of Tijuana who teaches business at CETYS. (Max Rivlin-Nadler/KPBS)

But getting a degree in Mexico hasn’t always been viewed as a positive in the job market.

Lorena Serrano is a fifth-generation resident of Tijuana. She teaches business at CETYS and says it used to be much harder for graduates from Mexican schools to find work at U.S. companies.

“They were rejected because of the study in Mexico,” she said.

But Serrano has seen things slowly change.

“I have students that were born in the U.S., study in Mexico, have the opportunity to work in the U.S., only with the degree of CETYS. It’s our main goal,” she said.

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

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