Chinese and other foreign students threatening to crowd out Americans at elite US colleges

The admission of foreign students to top US colleges is a boon for both overseas scholars and their indigenous classmates, but is there a tipping point?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 7:01pm

A major increase in international enrolment in recent years has intensified the competition for entry to America’s top private colleges and universities, as ever-growing numbers of applicants – especially from China – angle for the limited supply of seats.

That tension is particularly evident in the eight prestigious Ivy League schools: federal data shows that their first-year (freshman) classes grew slightly from 2004 to 2014 – 5 per cent – while the number of incoming foreign students rose 46 per cent. At the same time, applications to the schools shot up 88 per cent.

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At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where just 6 per cent of 30,000 applicants are accepted, the foreign share of the first-year class has grown from single digits to 11 per cent. As Yale’s undergraduate enrolment has edged upward since 2004, foreigners have accounted for almost all of the growth, reflecting a deliberate strategy to deepen Yale’s engagement with the world.

“We want to bring together an incredibly diverse student body – diverse in every way,” says Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College. “If we want to train the next generation of global leaders, we better have the globe here.”

Foreign and domestic demand grew so high that Yale has embarked on its biggest expansion since its undergraduate college opened to women in 1969. This autumn Yale will open two new residential complexes, a US$500 million project to lift enrolment capacity by 15 per cent.

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International growth has fostered an increasingly cosmopolitan culture on campuses across the US, with academic benefits for domestic and foreign students alike. It gives colleges an additional path towards ethnic and racial diversity, opening doors to students from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. But it also adds pressure to the admissions scramble that final-year US high school students (seniors) are starting to experience this month as schools release early-admission decisions.

Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University in Washington, says he is concerned that international enrolment could be nearing an unacceptable level at some schools by potentially crowding out qualified US students.

“We’re in a global world,” Deacon says. “There certainly is an argument for the presence of foreign nationals at US universities. But is there a tipping point where this is too many? That is an issue we have to reckon with.”

The international share of first-year students at Georgetown rose from 3 per cent in 2004 to 11 per cent in 2014, on par with Yale. During that time, Georgetown’s admission rate fell 5 points, to 17 per cent of applicants. Deacon says those numbers are reasonable for a university in the nation’s capital with a school of foreign service and a global profile. “We think it works well for us,” he says.

US applicants to elite colleges and universities are largely unaware of the increase in international enrolment and what it could mean for their chances, says Bruce Vinik, an admissions consultant in Maryland state. He says the subject could draw “pretty strong” reactions from students anxious about whether their top-choice schools will accept or reject them.

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“Some kids would probably be upset it has increased competition and made it tougher to get into these colleges,” Vinik says. “Others – quite a few, actually – would see the benefits” of diversity.

Except for a brief period after the September 11 terrorist attacks, international enrolment at US colleges has been growing for generations.

“Based on history, we think the United States will continue to be a destination of choice and foreign students will continue to want to come here, for all the reasons they come here today,” says Allan Goodman, chief executive and president of the Institute of International Education.

There were about 427,000 international undergraduates at US colleges and universities in the 2015-2016 school year, data shows. That was up 79 per cent from over a decade ago. The top oversease source of students was China, followed by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, India and Vietnam.

Among these students is Yifu Dong, 21, a final-year Yale student from Beijing who majors in history. His father writes columns for a Chinese newspaper, and his mother is a civil engineer. They are a middle-class family, Dong says, and he receives financial aid.

“It’s eye-opening for me,” he says. “Your ideas are constantly being challenged. I really like this kind of education, the liberal arts.”

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The foreign influx has helped offset stagnation in the annual supply of graduates from US high schools. Public universities often use international recruiting to help balance budgets when states cut funding for higher education. At the University of California at Berkeley, data shows the foreign share of first-year students in 2014 – 13 per cent – was four times higher than in 2004.

Many tuition-dependent private colleges have similar motives, seeking to fill seats with students who can pay full or nearly full price.

Some kids would probably be upset it has increased competition and made it tougher to get into these colleges
Bruce Vinik

But the calculus is different for top-ranked private colleges and universities with an abundance of qualified applicants. For these institutions, going global often appears to be more of a strategic choice than a financial necessity. Some give international students significant financial aid.

Federal data on “non-resident aliens” shows the international share of first-year students doubled at Duke University in North Carolina, from 5 per cent in 2004 to 10 per cent in 2014. The share also doubled at Brown University in Rhode Island, to 12 per cent, and Columbia University, in New York, to 15 per cent. It quadrupled at Claremont McKenna College in California, to 20 per cent.

For US applicants, the increase in foreign competition adds another layer of difficulty. They’re now up against a growing pool of the world’s best students.

The University of Chicago recently set a goal for international enrolment of 15 per cent. The foreign share of its first-year intake in 2014 was 11 per cent, up from 9 per cent in 2004. The university’s admission rate plunged in that time, data shows, from 40 per cent to 9 per cent.

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“To me it would be peculiar – given the evolution of problems in the world, the challenges the world faces, and the flow of ideas and capital and everything else – if we didn’t have a much more global perspective embedded within the university,” says University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer.

International students are often stereotyped as rich kids from abroad who can pay full tuition fees. Many are wealthy. But enrolment officers at prominent colleges and universities deny that foreign recruiting is all about money.

“For us, it was really philosophical,” says Katharine Harrington, vice-president of admissions and planning for the University of Southern California, where 18 per cent of first-year students in 2014 were international, up from 7 per cent in 2004. “If this is truly a national and global university, we really do believe the undergraduate population ought to better mirror the world in which our students are going to live and work and make their way.”

USC’s admission rate fell in that decade from 27 per cent to 18 per cent.

Sure, it’s tougher. It’s tougher for everybody – international and domestic – to get in
John Latting, Emory

At Emory University in Georgia, the international share of first-year student intake tripled over a decade, to 17 per cent in 2014. John Latting, Emory’s dean of admissions, said the growth reflected a spike in international applications. Fifteen years ago, he says, South Korea was big. Then China emerged.

“Now we see India, big time,” he says, with that country accounting for 44 of some 1,360 first-year students this year. That’s equal to the number from Maryland.

Emory has also become more selective, last year admitting 25 per cent of applicants. In 2004, it admitted 42 per cent. “Sure, it’s tougher,” Latting says. “It’s tougher for everybody – international and domestic – to get in.”

At Yale, US students say contact with international peers is invaluable. Zunaira Arshad, 21, a final-year student from the state of Illinois, says conversations with classmates from Syria and Turkey enriched her perspective on the Syrian crisis.

“I’ve learned to empathise and care about people and think about other people besides myself,” she says. “There needs to be more of that. Please, don’t let it be less.”

Yale’s push to globalise accelerated after the school celebrated its tricentenary in 2001. The university is one of a few to say that it considers all applications, domestic and foreign, without regard to financial need and meets full need for all who enrol.

“Their financial aid package was the best,” says Camila Franco, 21, a third-year student (junior) from Buenos Aires majoring in biomedical engineering. “I feel incredibly lucky to be here.”

She says she chose Yale after applying to 11 US institutions, drawn to the university’s global atmosphere.

“My roommate is from Burma,” she says. “It has definitely opened up my mind.”