These are supposed to be tough times for recruiting international students. Last year saw a 7 percent drop in new international enrollments in the United States. Enrollments in intensive English programs -- frequently the first step toward applying to a college -- are down by even a larger percentage. The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are talking up the idea that Chinese students constitute a national security threat -- even as educators question such statements. And the challenge is particularly great for liberal arts colleges, given that students in many countries focus only on large universities.
But Franklin & Marshall College is on track to have 23 percent of its new students this fall hail from outside the United States. That's up from 15 percent of those who enrolled in fall 2017, which is by itself a larger share than one would find at many other nearby liberal arts colleges -- last fall's freshman class at Lafayette College was 8 percent international, and at Bucknell University, the figure was 6 percent.
Eric Maguire, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall, said that the college has been pushing generally to increase international enrollments above the 10 percent of the class that was the norm until about a decade ago. But he said there was no particular push in the last year, although the numbers of both applications and deposits were up significantly.
Franklin & Marshall International Admissions
|Applications||Deposits for Fall|
At F&M, most of the international students (as is the case generally in the United States) come from China and India. While South Korea is frequently the country sending the third-largest number of students, the third spot at F&M goes to Vietnam. Most of the students are full pay, but some do receive scholarships.
Maguire was quick to stress that "one year does not a trend make." He also noted that the larger percentage this year reflects a combination of events. Yield of international students is up, and the college was trying for a slightly smaller overall freshman class this year. The past two years saw classes of close to 650 when yields were stronger than expected, when the goal has been a class size of 615. This year, the college is aiming for 610. While there are 627 deposits, summer melt among students is likely to bring the total down to around 610.
This year's numbers, he said, "are not an overnight success," but represent "a foundation of decades of doing this." Over time, the college has established relationships with counselors in China and elsewhere that result in potential students being identified who are likely to be interested in and succeed at the college. He said that the college's efforts date to the 1980s and include years of much smaller international classes than Franklin & Marshall now sees. As a result of the slow and steady growth in enrollments, Maguire said, F&M has the resources that students need and doesn't need to scramble for, say, an expert on visa issues.
And Franklin & Marshall does not use agents. "This is 100 percent ourselves," Maguire said.
In the controversy over the use of commission-paid agents, many proponents have said they are particularly important for smaller colleges that may lack the resources to send people to China and India for sustained periods of time.
In terms of new tactics this year, Maguire points to a decision to "borrow" an anthropology faculty member to spend several weeks in China in both the spring and fall. "She was there for yield events," he said. "Having a faculty member who can speak articulately and passionately about the liberal arts college to people who are not familiar makes a big difference," he said.
Reaching Chinese Students
Monica Cable, the professor, is currently leading a four-week course in China and India for Franklin & Marshall students. But via email, she discussed her role and the challenges of recruiting students in China for a liberal arts college. She said that by virtue of her "hybrid position" on the faculty and in admissions, she thinks she can provide important insights to prospective students in China.
"A liberal arts education is relatively new to the Chinese. Unfortunately, the most commonly used translation of 'liberal arts college' mistakenly (in my opinion) places the quality of a liberal arts college below that of a university," she said. "As a professor, I can talk to prospective students, admitted students and concerned parents about what students can expect in both the classroom and in working one-on-one with faculty. I can contrast the experience at F&M with that of a previous teaching position I held at a large research institution, where I had close to 200 students in a single introductory class. With this many students, it was really only possible to learn the names of the top 10 students … and the bottom 10 students! But at F&M, my students can expect me to know their name within a week or two. And if they have any questions about course content or just want to chat, my office door is always open to them, either during my official office hours or at an appointed time more convenient to their schedule."
Many of her crucial interactions in China, she said, are with parents. "Chinese parents are no different than American parents -- they want to know that their child will be employable after graduating, or will be able to get into a top graduate program. I love telling students and their parents about my first Chinese student who after taking Introduction to Social Anthropology with me declared an anthropology major, and then went on to complete a master's at Cambridge and will be starting a Ph.D. program this fall in Hong Kong. Or the Chinese music major I helped advise on ethnographic methods before she set out to conduct college-funded research in China one summer, and after graduation went on to a Ph.D. program in musicology at the University of Pennsylvania."
Questions about research come up a lot, Cable said. "Chinese students and their parents are often concerned about research opportunities while studying at a liberal arts college. Again, I can tell them not only about the research programs available to F&M students and the high number of our students who conduct research with faculty, but in more detail about the Chinese student I worked with putting together an application for college funding to spend a summer in West Africa conducting ethnographic research on local perspectives of Chinese-funded development projects."
Could a College Have Too Many International Students?
Gains in international enrollments are sometimes controversial, especially at public institutions. When word spread that Chinese students made up 10 percent of the freshman class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014, critics asked why their number far exceeded that of African-American students from Illinois. The University of California system has faced tough political criticism over increasing out-of-state (much of it international) enrollments. For public institutions, international students pay nonresident tuition rates and sometimes additional fees. For private colleges such as F&M, the financial benefit is typically having more full-pay students.
Maguire was quick to point out that Franklin & Marshall has increased international enrollments without seeing any decline in the percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students (17 percent last year). Further, he noted that minority student enrollments (if groups are combined) exceed the total number of international students. Last year's percentages for nonwhite students were 7.4 percent for black students, 4.8 percent for Asian-Americans and 11.9 percent for Latinos.
This year, the goal for international enrollment was the same as last year's 17 percent. So he said there is "a conversation to have" on whether the goal going forward should be to replicate this year's international share or to aim for something different. "This is perhaps a different scale" than what had been envisioned, Maguire said. "It's a different dynamic we need to think through."
Franklin & Marshall has a new president arriving in August, Barbara K. Altmann, provost of Bucknell. Maguire said that when she arrives, "we'll have that conversation."