Top U.S. colleges pride themselves on building global communities.
Admissions officers travel the world to tout the diverse international perspectives on campus; college brochures enumerate the countries that students hail from.
But restrictive financial-aid policies at U.S. colleges shut out very large numbers of international applicants.
I got my first inside look at international admissions when I took a job helping talented Ukrainian students from poor families apply to U.S. colleges.
The nonprofit I joined worked with some of Ukraine’s top applicants: national champions in chemistry, German and mixed martial arts; inventors of technologies that have transformed their communities; energetic entrepreneurs, volunteers, and peer leaders.
These young men and women would be incredible additions to any college campus.
Over the past few months, one admissions officer after another has told me that they loved our students but didn’t have the budget to admit them. Some of the official rejection letters made the situation explicit, asking students to get back in touch if they happened to find someone willing to pay $70,000 a year for their college expenses.
Regardless of a college’s overall selectivity, average acceptance rates for applicants like mine hover between 1 and 3 percent. In the face of such odds, my students don’t have the luxury of creating balanced college lists with safety or target schools. Every application is a near-impossible dream.
These constraints stand in stark contrast to the admissions landscape faced by low-income domestic applicants. Over the past few decades, the higher education sector has prioritized support for such students, vastly expanding financial aid budgets. Over a hundred U.S. colleges and universities have pledged to practice need-blind admissions for domestic candidates, evaluating applicants on academic merit and disregarding applicants’ ability to pay.
As a result, racial and socioeconomic diversity on elite campuses has skyrocketed. Nonprofits like QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation have found success sourcing underrepresented U.S. students and preparing them to apply to elite schools, where they’ve been awarded full financial aid.
While talented domestic students may celebrate admissions bonanzas, equally qualified international applicants struggle to secure even a single acceptance letter. The reasons for the discrepancy are largely financial. Because the U.S. government does not offer financial aid for international students, colleges must rely exclusively on their own resources to fund non-American applicants. And few institutions prioritize such aid — as of now, only five American undergraduate institutions are need-blind for international applicants.
These financial-aid policies aren’t just a problem for students like mine, who find themselves shut out of an education at some of the world’s top colleges. Severely restricting the number of international financial-aid recipients also does a disservice to a college’s entire student body.
International students who can afford to pay full U.S. tuition aren’t just comfortably upper-middle-class; rather, they typically hail from the ranks of the super-rich. When most international students on campus come from highly privileged backgrounds, their classmates miss out on a true diversity of perspectives. Members of the global elite, regardless of their nationalities, tend to travel in the same social circles and share similar world views.
It is these world views that are heavily represented on U.S. campuses, while the students who snag the coveted spots with full financial aid remain few and far between. It’s virtually impossible for two poor international kids — or even 10 or 20 such kids — to make a substantial mark on institutions whose students number in the thousands.
College administrators know the benefits of building a global campus and frequently proclaim their commitment to geographic diversity. It’s time for them to put their money where their mouths are.
U.S. colleges and universities need to fund a larger, more representative group of international students. Otherwise, our country’s future leaders will continue spending their college years encased in elite bubbles, leaving with vastly inaccurate ideas about the wider world.
This story about international students in U.S. colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Katerina Manoff is director of partner relations at Ukraine Global Scholars.