Franklin & Marshall College
Nearly one-fourth of the first-year students who entered Franklin & Marshall College in the fall of 2018 were from China. That total was far above those of comparable liberal arts colleges and came about despite serious obstacles: the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress were talking up the idea that Chinese students constitute a national security threat—even as educators question such statements. And the challenge was particularly great for liberal arts colleges, given that students from many countries focus only on large universities.
But those challenges were nothing compared to what was ahead. The COVID-19 epidemic and related visa problems suddenly made it impossible for many students from China to reach the United States. It was impossible for Franklin & Marshall to send a professor (who had been credited with the initial surge of enrollment) back to recruit in person.
In the winter of 2022–23, Franklin & Marshall has largely overcome those challenges and expects another strong class of international students (with the largest share from China, but also from other countries as well). But the process has not always been easy. For the two years of the pandemic’s worst impact, the college set up a program in Shanghai for students it wanted but who couldn’t get here. And the college also made use of a program that it had in Bath, in Britain, for students who could travel there but not to the U.S.
Barbara K. Altmann, president of Franklin & Marshall, said the college’s efforts are intentional. It’s not strictly for revenue, she said, noting that Franklin & Marshall has been meeting the full need of all students, foreign and domestic. And “it’s not just the right thing to do,” she said.
“The point is to create a global community on campus,” she said. Altmann said that, done right, the campaign will change the outlook and educational experience of domestic students as well as those from abroad.
Achieving her goal is not easy. Consider the application numbers for Franklin & Marshall during this period, with rises and falls.
The years covered are of course the years of the pandemic, which hurt applications and enrollment at many colleges. To the extent Franklin & Marshall has pulled itself out of the worst period of the pandemic, it has become more dependent on foreign applications.
F&M officials are hopeful about this fall’s class, based on the overall increase in applications. In the fall of the last two years, enrollment was down, reflecting the struggles of many colleges in dealing with the pandemic.
In the fall of 2020, F&M had 574 freshmen. In the fall of 2021, it had 518 freshmen; in the fall of 2022, it had only 488.
Then consider where the international students are from. This spring, the college has 231 students who are from China (plus another five from Hong Kong). But Altmann is also proud of other countries that are present: Vietnam with 20, India with 14 and Nepal with 10 have the most students.
But other countries with at least two students include: Bangladesh (2), Brazil (2), Colombia (2), Ecuador (2), Egypt (8), Ethiopia (2), Ghana (2), Greece (3), Japan (3), Mongolia (4), Pakistan (5), Rwanda (2), South Korea (3), Spain (9), Taiwan (2), Ukraine (2), the United Kingdom (2) and Uzbekistan (2). And 26 other countries have a single student at Franklin & Marshall this semester. These numbers may not sound impressive, but at a college of 2,200, they are notable.
Sue Mennicke, associate dean for international programs, said that “our trajectory for internationalization” is “our success with Chinese students,” but the more interesting change is “the diversification of the international students.”
Hillen Grason Jr., dean of admission, said the college puts no strict limit on the number of Chinese students who can enroll.
Making It Through the Pandemic
Mennicke said the decision to educate students in Shanghai was pragmatic. At the time, there was no way that many Chinese students could get to the United States, regardless of whether they had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
The college used its own faculty members, teaching online, so students could truly be enrolled at F&M even when they couldn’t get there.
“Virtual can be a really good thing,” said Mennicke. “We got really good at it.” She said the college didn’t want to keep Shanghai as a permanent program. “We’re a liberal arts college,” she said. But at the same time, “we don’t need to be afraid of the virtual.”
“We really retained that class,” noting that the students were now enrolled in Lancaster, Pa. The vast majority who attended the program in Shanghai enrolled in Lancaster.
Altmann said, “There was no thought of letting [the college’s Chinese enrollment] go. We have built a community there—we have alumni; we meet them.” She said she would like to work to keep the percentage of Chinese students at 20 to 24 percent and to “actively work” at getting a broader international student body.
Grason said that when the pandemic first broke out, three years ago, “we realized the risks that can come from any single country.” While China was the original focus of COVID awareness, the pandemic would eventually spread worldwide.
“We’re not looking just to check off a country,” he said. The goal is to have two or three students from as many countries as possible, he said.
Another shift involves the students from China and elsewhere. Pre-pandemic, the international students tended to be affluent.
Now, with the college meeting 100 percent of the identified need of all students, fewer than half of international students are full pay.
Another strong point for F&M is its location, in Lancaster, which Altmann calls “a big draw.”
Lancaster is not what many American students have been seeking (urban or suburban, all the way up to a large city). But Altmann said Lancaster has advantages of geography, and it defies the stereotypes of a small city in Pennsylvania in culture and restaurants. And for Chinese students (and some Americans), that is welcome, she said. “We’re easy to get to,” Altmann said. “We are very close to Baltimore and New York City. We’re a relatively safe city—we’re navigable; Lancaster is truly successful, and we eat well.”