NY Times Misses Boat on International Admissions

The New York Times’ David Leonhardt took a deep dive into the impact of foreign applicants on admission rates at elite US colleges. Click here to read.

Leonhardt presents compelling data to support his main argument that admissions at top US schools have gotten much tougher because these universities have fewer spots available for native US applicants. Surprisingly, despite the current echo of the baby boom, the total number of college-aged Americans has only increased by about 8.5% – from 16.5 million in 1984 to 17.9 million in 2012. It’s competition from overseas, Leonhardt suggests, that has driven down admissions rates, as colleges have sought to add foreign students.

Leonhardt, however, focuses only on the supply side without addressing the demand side of admissions. Harvard offers 27% fewer places to American undergraduate candidates than it did 18 years ago, so they clearly admit more foreign applicants than they used to, as do about a dozen other top institutions. But Leonhardt ignores demand. The numbers of applicants for top universities have increased from all sources, but they’ve skyrocketed from abroad – especially from countries like China, India and South Korea where thousands of successful entrepreneurs now have college-aged children. Saudi Arabia sends 45,000 boys to the US for college every year.

Reading Leonhardt’s article, you might come away with the impression that foreigners have an easier time getting in. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Alex Tabet, the top college counselor in the Middle East, explains, thousands of international applicants with flawless credentials compete for precious few spots. MIT, which publishes its data, accepted 9.7% of their US applicants last year but only 2.6% of foreign applicants. Harvard has not accepted a single student from Abu Dhabi or Dubai since 2009. As tough as it is for Americans, international applicants face much tougher odds.

Why do all of these students feel so determined to study in America? Because US universities – contrary to what Americans who graduate with debt and can’t find jobs say – offer tremendous value. Unlike international universities where students must effectively choose a career before applying, US universities let you pick your major after a year or two of study. But US universities have another obvious advantage. 74 US colleges have endowments worth over a billion dollars. The rest of the world seems to have about 6. That money means better instructors, better research and better facilities.

Ironically, the biggest value at American universities may not be available to US citizens. A Japan-based client of mine oversees hiring at a major international bank. He explained that, given the transnational nature of their business, his bank only has use for employees with experience navigating multiple cultures. Studying the language isn’t enough. Even if they graduated from Yale or Cambridge, people who know only one culture have no value for his bank.

In order to explain the top universities’ increased attention to international students, Leonhardt quotes William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions: “It would be a lesser education for [American students] if they didn’t get a chance to interact with some international students.”

Does interacting with a kid from Pakistan at your Massachusetts university enrich your education? Not according to my banker client in Tokyo. He’d rather hire the Pakistani who navigated frat parties sober and in a hijab while maintaining her daily prayer routine.

Of course, given how much harder it was for her to get in to that elite college in the first place, she’s probably better qualified to begin with.

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