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When college officials talk about international students and the need to increase their numbers, a common assumption is that international undergraduates are "full pay" -- meaning that no discounting is involved and the students pay the full sticker price. As colleges have been forced to provide larger and larger aid packages to American students (even those without financial need), international students have been described as a key way to keep budgets balanced.

But quietly, in some cases over the last few years and in other cases for longer periods of time, some American campuses have been starting to offer non-need-based scholarships to international students. The issue is a sensitive one -- especially at public colleges and universities, where many legislators tend to be dubious of out-of-state enrollments to start with.

But some admissions officials say that including some aid based on academics is essential to get not only the desired number of international students, but to keep the academic quality high.

"The international student marketplace has become more competitive and more savvy as it relates to American pricing differences, and universities are responding in kind," said David Burge, vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University.

At George Mason, about 3,000 of the 35,000 total student body is from outside the United States. Burge estimated less than 10 percent of those students receive any aid from the university.

Burge said George Mason's approach is the same for international students as for non-Virginia-resident domestic students -- to look for outstanding academic candidates and provide an extra incentive to enroll. Students who are getting aid are those "who will have a markedly positive impact on [the] academic environment," he said.

The shift at George Mason to include international students in such consideration is a gradual one of the last year or so, Burge said. And it comes as many colleges in the United States are facing flat or (in the South, declining) yields on offers they have made to international applicants.

"Universities with an eye toward internationalization have used this tactic and have done so because of market realities," he said.

At the same time, Burge is quick to note that international students are getting modest support -- no one is getting a full ride, and no one is getting so much money that Virginia residents don't enjoy a price advantage over international students. (Tuition and fees for Virginia residents at George Mason total just under $6,000 a semester, while non-Virginians pay just over $17,000 a semester. Virginia residents also are eligible for many forms of need-based aid.)

Other public universities appear to share the sensitivities about international students ever paying less than those from the state -- and for keeping most international students in the full-pay category. At Michigan State University, non-need-based scholarships for international students (leaving aside a few that have work responsibilities as well) range from $1,000 to $6,000 a year. International students pay more than $25,000 more in tuition and fees than do Michigan residents.

Iowa State University offers two academically based scholarship programs for international applicants: one is for $8,000 a year and the other $4,000 a year. (International students pay about $15,000 more a year in tuition and fees than do Iowa residents, and about $1,000 more than non-Iowa-resident Americans.)

At Iowa State, about 47 of these awards have been made a year recently. That equals about 7 percent of the new class of international undergraduates.

Different Philosophy at a Private College

Wheaton College in Massachusetts is a private institution, and thus doesn't need to worry about the political implications of aid to international students in the way that public institutions do. It is embracing an approach that mixes need-based and non-need-based aid and includes full scholarships.

"Wheaton has a real institutional commitment to building a global community," said Grant Gosselin, who is the vice president and dean of admission and student aid. The college awards three or four international students full scholarships a year at the college, where tuition, room and board top $63,000.

While the college can't afford full scholarships for many, it maintains a need-based pool that is open to international students, with many students receiving up to half of the cost of attendance.

The freshman class at Wheaton is about 500 students, of which just over 10 percent come from outside the United States. Gosselin said that about half of them are receiving some aid.

Gosselin said he understands that colleges need to think about a variety of issues in developing their strategies for international enrollment. But he said he fears the messages institutions send when they assume all students from outside the United States are ready and able to pay full freight.

"What I worry about that the idea that international students equals full pay is that we are only interested for their pocketbook," he said.

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