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Checking the numbers on international students

As the game of elite college admissions gets ever more competitive, the idea that the game is rigged in someone else’s favor is always sure to garner attention. A case in point is an article in Sunday's New York Times by David Leonhardt ’94 (a sometime contributor to our magazine) about how US colleges’ new interest in international students has taken away slots at selective colleges from American students. The piece has been on the Times’s most e-mailed stories list since it came out, surely in part because of all the families who've just been through an emotional admissions season. (That said, it’s an insider’s overstatement to claim, as Leonhardt does in his opening sentence, that “any high school senior or junior—or their parents” will tell you that “getting into a selective college is harder than it used to be.”)

Leonhardt cites his alma mater as an example of the cost of internationalization to American students, writing that

The number of spots filled by American students at Harvard, after adjusting for the size of the teenage population nationwide, has dropped 27 percent since 1994. At Yale and Dartmouth, the decline has been 24 percent.

You might be forgiven for thinking—as did some of the people I’ve talked to about this article—that Yale College now admits close to a quarter of its students from abroad. In fact, the number is currently about 10.5 percent. The number has risen sharply since 1993, when only 4 percent of students came from outside the US. But most of that rise happened just after Yale moved to need-blind admissions for international students in 2001. Since 2002–03, the number has risen more slowly, from 7.9 percent to 10.5.

Leonhardt apparently means that the number of slots per capita for American students has declined by 24 percent, but two-thirds of that decline is simply a function of a larger teenage population—the so-called echo boom. (I asked Leonhardt about his methodology but haven't heard back from him yet.)

At most universities, Leonhardt points out, international students tend to be well-off and not receive financial aid, which “has complicated the colleges’ stated efforts to make their classes more economically diverse.” The exceptions, he notes, include Harvard, Amherst, MIT, and Yale, which have need-blind admissions for international students. Dean of undergraduate admissions Jeremiah Quinlan ’03 acknowledges that many colleges around the country may turn to international students for tuition income, but he says Yale and the peers mentioned above are different. 55 percent of students overall receive financial aid, but Quinlan says the number is higher for international students. “We are not looking for full-payer international students,” he says.

Quinlan adds that “the growth in our international pool has outpaced the growth in the domestic pool,” meaning that the admission rate for international students is even lower than this year’s 6.25 percent overall rate.

Still, there's no denying that even a small rise in the number of international students means less room for American students, just as finding more low-income students means less room for middle-class and rich students, reserving slots for recruited athletes means less room for the non–kinesthetically gifted, and showing favor to legacies (the subject of another Times op-ed this week) means less room for nonlegacies.

But while there will always be hard choices in admissions, Yale will soon have a chance to open a few new spots for any or all of the above. Quinlan says that when Yale builds two new residential colleges and expands its undergraduate enrollment by some 15 percent, there will be a conversation about how to shape the demographics of those newer, larger classes. “It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset the zero-sum game,” he says.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Jeremiah Quinlan, David Leonhardt
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