• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Funding International Students: Eternal Quandary

The announcement that Cornell is adjusting its admissions policy for international students from need-blind to “need aware” only seems to add to the confusion about who we enroll from abroad and why.

February 16, 2016

The announcement that Cornell is adjusting its admissions policy for international students from need-blind to “need aware” only seems to add to the confusion about who we enroll from abroad and why.

On most US campuses there is no aid for foreign students — zero, zilch!  International students have become an attractive source of revenue because unlike most US students, they don’t qualify for federal or state aid, and generally pay 100% of their tuition, housing, and other expenses.  This is very attractive for colleges that find themselves in need of ever-larger budgets for need-based and merit-based awards in order to reach enrollment targets of American students.  Full-pay international students are a good deal — revenue in, nothing out.  And if the university works with third-party agents, even better, as there’s no recruitment cost either.  A bargain for the university that successfully enrolls these “full-pay” students. 

Worse still, some public universities have added a tuition surcharge for international students.  While it has been common practice for state universities to charge higher fees to out-of-state students, now many of these institutions are charging even higher fees to international students that may range from $800 to $3,000 above the out-of-state rate. 

Too often, the result is a conspicuous economic disparity between US and international students. The international students who can afford to enroll at an American college tend to come from the very wealthy, economic elite in their home country, especially when they come from the developing world.  International students can be particularly visible on many campuses with new cars, fashionable clothing, expensive jewelry and extravagant travel during semester breaks. The differences in family wealth too often exacerbate an already perilous cultural divide and unfortunate stereotypes can result. Without intervention from faculty and staff, these international students and domestic students frequently exist on campus in parallel spheres.

There are a relatively small number of colleges that provide financial aid to international students, either through dedicated private scholarships or as part of the overall financial aid budget.  Depending on the size of the award, this may or may not do much to increase the diversity of the international student population.  Many colleges provide small awards of $5,000/year without recognizing that in many developing countries, a family that can’t afford $60,000/year, probably can’t afford $55,000/year.  In other words, a talented student from the middle class in a developing country will need nearly full funding and a $5,000 award brings in pretty much the same student that a college would enroll with no award at all, perhaps providing only a "sweetener" that might lure the student away from a competing institution. 

There is a small group of international students without adequate financial means of their own, who receive a small award from the university and who manage to get a student visa.  These students may find themselves living on a financial knife edge with high levels of economic stress while trying to make progress towards their degree.  Occasionally anecdotes surface of the dire living conditions that some of these students endure, just to study abroad.  These students are also likely to live in a parallel sphere with limited interaction with the rest of campus.

In sum, given the lack of funding available to international students at most US universities, there is limited economic diversity in this undergraduate population (save for the few countries with national scholarship programs for degree study abroad). As a result, participation tends to come from the top of the socio-economic strata.   The economic diversity of the international students rarely mirrors the diversity of domestic enrollment. 

Back to Cornell. Cornell is among a small group of colleges with a relatively generous aid budget available to international students.  Still, with only about 5% of the university’s financial aid budget available to international students, Cornell is moving towards allocating awards more strategically.  The decision to move to “need aware” admissions reflects deeper thought about which international students to accept and the characteristics of international undergraduate population the university wishes to host.

My first reading of the article about the policy shift made me “humph” somewhat cynically at the thought of making financial means part of an admissions decision.  But on my second reading, I found myself thinking that Cornell is struggling more honestly with how best to work with limited funds and provide more realistic support to a more diverse group of international students.  There are certainly ups and downs to moving to a “need aware” admissions policy.  No doubt there are students who will be denied, who might be able to find private funding in their home country if they had a letter of admission from Cornell.  It will be interesting to follow how this evolves and if Cornell will make additional adjustments to the policy in the future.



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