True or False, Pt. 1: International Student College Admissions

Welcome to the first installment of a new series on the blog!  In “True or False” I will look at the assumptions, beliefs, opinions and myths surrounding a specific aspect of college admissions.  I will use  relevant data to evaluate whether or not these ideas are “True” or “False”–or somewhere on a continuum between the two.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a college counselor at an independent boarding school in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Our school has students from more than a dozen states and over 20 countries, so my colleagues and I spend a lot of time working with and thinking about college opportunities for international students.  In my seven years as a college counselor I have worked directly with students from South Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia; my colleagues in the college guidance office have worked with scores of students from these and other nations.  Recently at a department meeting we discussed the need to answer some frequently asked questions that these students and their parents raise; this post will aim to do so, while also discussing some topics that are simply assumed, and thus never asked.

Without further ado, here are some of the most popular beliefs we have encountered.  If you can think of more, or if you have a response, please leave comments at the end of the post.

Students should apply to universities, not to colleges: 

On numerous occasions my colleagues and I have spoken to parents who were aghast that the lists we provided their children had so many colleges and so few universities.  A reason for this, is that in America, the words “college” and “university” are basically interchangeable. A college bestows Bachelor degrees, while a university can bestow Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees, but otherwise they are functionally identical.

This is not the case in other countries, and most confusingly, it is not the case in other English-speaking countries!  In England, for example, “College” could refer to what we think of as college prep high school, or “Further Education”, which has no analog in America, or “Higher Education” which can result in a diploma (though maybe not a degree; for one of those, one needs to go to a university). In Canada, some colleges can bestow bachelor’s degrees, but most are what we would consider “pre-professional”. In Canada, Ireland, and other current or former parts of the British Commonwealth, “colleges” can even be secondary schools.  This can be extremely misleading! According to the National Association For College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), Great Britain has 165 institutions of higher learning, of which 115 are universities.  Australia, on the other hand, has 180 higher learning institutions, but only 39 universities. In those nations, one would be wise to make a distinction, but in America it is not necessary.

So international students seeking a Bachelor’s degree in America are perfectly safe attending either a college or a university.  Naturally any future employers in their home countries may eventually need an explanation, but the educational experience will be the same at either type of school.

Students should avoid liberal arts programs, and should instead focus on a career-oriented major

This is another issue that is hard to generalize about.  Obviously every student is different, and their goals and aspirations vary wildly. Americans are increasingly recognizing that liberal arts educations provide the kind of independent, agile thinkers able to succeed in the constantly changing 21st century economy, and one often hears of the number of Fortune 500 executives with liberal arts backgrounds. Studies have shown that immediately following graduation, people with degrees in field with high occupational specificity earn more, but that the gap closes over time. On the other hand, students looking to return to their home countries after college may need the specific credential of a career-specific major to gain entry into the workforce.

Evidence of the latter point is present if one looks at the majors that international students pursue in American schools. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), nearly 50% of international students major in one of three main areas: Business & Management, Engineering and Math & Computer Science.

International students seem to be “voting with their feet” and choosing the majors that they believe will most likely help their career interests in both the short and long terms.  This is probably especially true if one attends a college with less of a world-renowned reputation.  I am always ready to recommend liberal arts majors to the right students, but I also trust that once they arrive at college, they will have ample support and advice from knowledgeable people steering them in the right direction.



Students should apply to institutions of higher learning that have the best rankings

Again, it is important to recognize that name recognition can be very important, which is why surveys like the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are so interesting.  On the other hand, colleges can be well-recognized “brands” for the wrong reasons altogether, as Franklin and Marshall College, established in 1787, has recently discovered.

College ranking lists (most popularly the US News and World Reports list, but there are many others) are problematic for numerous reasons.  Yale University Director of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel very cogently explains why:

>This country happens to have hundreds of outstanding undergraduate programs, each offering more opportunities than any student could possibly pursue over four years. It will be up to the student to make something out of those opportunities, and it will not be the school that makes something out of the student.
Meanwhile, the formulas used to rank schools are based on factors that in themselves are often irrelevant to individual students. Their composite scores reflect alumni giving rates, student-to-teacher ratios, median SAT scores, persistence to graduation, admissions selectivity and other data that provide little information about specific program strengths, honors programs or the general way in which the school lifts and supports student aspirations. The simplicity and clarity that ranking systems seem to offer are not only misleading, but can also be harmful. Rankings tend to ignore the very criteria that may be most important to an applicant, such as specific academic offerings, intellectual and social climate, ease of access to faculty, international opportunities and placement rates for careers or for graduate and professional school.
Rankings have also turned out to be bad for colleges. They encourage schools to expend resources on things that move their ranking positions rather than things that serve their students. They diminish the appeal of colleges that serve many students extremely well but do not fit the performance parameters that the rankings measure. At one lower-ranked college, for example, students without strong prior academic records may tend to make tremendous gains, while at a higher-ranked school, even better-prepared students may tend to underperform their potential. The ranking systems provide no way to find out which is which.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy studied college ranking systems all over the world in 2007.  They noted that following the success of the US News lists, news sources in other countries such as England, Canada, China, Taiwan, Spain, Poland and Germany began publishing rankings.  We have heard anecdotally that the US News list holds special cachet in other countries, due to a mistaken belief that it is published by the American government. This may be apocryphal, but it is not surprising that consumers considering the purchase of an incredibly expensive product (in this case, a college education) would want to be as informed as possible.

I am in favor of potential customers learning all they can.  And with over 3000 colleges in the United States, a neutral ranking system would be hugely helpful.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to reduce all the complex factors that make a particular college “fit” a particular student to a set of numerical values.  Rankings lists can be helpful ways to begin one’s college search, but attendance at the highest ranked school should not be a goal in and of itself.


Location is not important; all American schools are basically the same


The number of international students in the US has increased dramatically in the past few decades, with the total (including secondary undergraduate, and graduate schools) increasing from around 25,000 in 1948 to nearly 800,000 people. The rate has increased by an annual average of 5% for the past six years.

Students come from virtually every nation around the globe, though in recent years China has become the leading source of international  students in American schools.  In fact, Chinese students make up a quarter of all foreign nationals in American schools, followed by India (13.1 %), South Korea (9.5%), Saudi Arabia (4.5%) and Canada (3.5%).

As a college counselor, I place a great emphasis on finding colleges that “fit” my students.  To that end, I ask them to reflect seriously on the reality that in choosing a college they are choosing a new home for four (or more) years.  I encourage them to take into consideration weather, urban/rural preferences, and many other factors when formulating their college lists.

Despite this emphasis, my colleagues and I have found that international students often ignore this advice. For families from other countries, it is quite natural to assume that there is no real difference between schools, states or regions of the US. While the average number of college applications per student is around 4, and while students at our school typically apply to around 7 colleges apiece, we regularly have international students who apply to 12, 18, 27 or even 32 colleges!  It is often hard to find common factors among these schools, and the geographic variety of the schools, combined with the difficulty that international families face in visiting colleges during the application process can lead students to have to decide among multiple unknown quantities when sorting through their acceptance letters.  I remember one advisee from South Korea who went to Syracuse, but transferred after a year because he couldn’t take the cold!  He had applied (and matriculated) based on the school’s (well-deserved) reputation, but he had not visited in the winter, which was a crucial piece of information! He wound up transferring to a college in Italy, and now lives in England with his Italian wife, so things worked out fine in the end, but he could have saved a lot of trouble if he told me that his main interests were to study the business of international soccer in a warm-weather climate.

It is obvious to Americans that there is a great difference between, say, a large university in New York City and a small college in Alabama, but that is not always clear to people who have limited experience in this country.  This should not surprise us–after all, how many Americans would be able to describe the difference between, say Beijing University and Nanjing University?

Location is quite important.  A student will not prosper if she is stuck in a place where she has no friends, or where the weather, the lack of public transportation and/or the school culture keep her in the library all day and night.  The list at left shows the American schools with the largest number of international students.  Chances are that these schools have offices devoted to helping international students adjust to life in the states.  And as you can see, the list is a mix of schools in the East, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest and West, along with urban and rural schools.  One good use of the data collected by US News, in fact, is the ability to search by the percentage of international students. I suggest that international students should begin their search with some of these schools, and then working from there to find similar schools in the geographic location that they prefer.


Financial Aid is available

Due to the economic difficulties experienced worldwide in the past few years and the concurrent rise in American higher education costs, everyone is justifiably concerned with how to afford an education.  My school is very generous in terms of financial aid, and is one of few schools to award aid to international students.  This can lead students to expect that colleges will be equally beneficent; unfortunately that conclusion is false. Very few American colleges provide any kind of substantial financial assistance to international students, and non-citizens are ineligible for any kind of federal financial aid including grants and loans.

Education USA, a website produced in collaboration with the United States Department of State, has very helpful resources for international students and their families, including a list of schools that offer scholarships to students from other countries. Their website is full of useful information, and is well worth some careful examination.

The reason why so few American colleges give aid to international students is because the schools’ budgetary plans depend on having an increasing number of “full pay” students; as the number of Americans willing and able to pay the full costs decreases, enrollment managers are looking to the international market.  Virtually every school requires international students to provide proof that their families have a bank account with an entire year’s costs set aside.  Obviously, with costs exceeding $60,000 at some elite colleges and universities this is a substantial hurdle on a planet where the average yearly income is $9000.   The most popular “proof of finances” form comes from the College Board, and as you can see, it actually encourages students to demonstrate that they have four years of costs in the bank at the time they apply.  Needless to say, very few people can do this.

After the first year, international students may be eligible to get a part-time job on campus, or serve as a Resident Assistant, or a research aide to a professor to earn some money, but it is not very likely that international students will be able to receive substantial amounts of need-based financial aid.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *