[Author’s Note: I have retracted one sentence in a previous version of this article that inaccurately characterized some international students. I replaced this sentence with an amended version so as to better reflect my argument.]
Earlier this year, the Stanford administration officially committed to implementing need-blind admissions for all international students. The initiative, which began with a student petition in March, has received little opposition. Student activists lauded the administration’s commitment as a step towards a more inclusive Stanford, and Dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid Richard Shaw said that the plan would be “a strong positive for Stanford” as it builds toward “a point of total access and support.”
Though this decision sounds good in the abstract, I am fearful it will do little to diversify our campus’ international student demographic, while only setting back Stanford admissions’ other initiatives to improve socioeconomic mobility. The vast majority of international applicants would still come from prestigious international schools reserved for a country’s privileged and wealthy minority. And while the new policy, if successfully enacted, would perhaps give more aid to upper-middle class foreigners, it would do little to actually improve global socioeconomic mobility, as these students would have been more than able to attend the best universities in their respective home countries.
Even worse, the university’s commitment to growing the endowment to accommodate its need-blind admissions policy would trade-off with better spent efforts to invest in existing financial aid for underprivileged American students. Given the recent surge in international student applications and acceptances across elite universities nationwide, it is imperative we reaffirm that Stanford does and should continue to prioritize American applicant diversity over international applicant diversity. Given Stanford’s historical complicity in perpetuating domestic injustice, it seems only fair that Stanford’s responsibility lies first and foremost in redressing American inequality, rather than the world’s, through affirmative action. While this by no means implies Stanford should shut its doors to international students, it does have important implications for the way we think about international admissions and aid.
Though need-blind admissions may make Stanford marginally more inclusive for international students, it would do little to challenge the barriers to access preventing lower income foreigners from reaping the benefits of a Stanford education. Qualified Stanford applicants would still need to speak English fluently, pass standardized exams, and be well-versed in the complicated logistics of the Stanford application process. I have the greatest admiration for underprivileged international students who have beaten the odds and were accepted at Stanford. Yet given the fact that many talented, middle-class students in the US do not even think of applying to Stanford, the chances of a non-elite foreign citizen gaining entrance to Stanford are slim. Stanford admissions would not be able to conduct rigorous outreach and recruiting for underprivileged communities globally as it does in the US. The elite relationships Stanford has built with top-notch international schools, like Eton in England or the Singapore American School in Singapore, would remained untouched.
At the same time, one could convincingly argue that a need-blind policy would help upper-middle class children globally gain access to a Stanford education. Financial aid statistics from existing need-blind institutions, which include Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, and Amherst College, reveal that the proportion of international students offered aid are substantially higher than Stanford’s. Whereas Stanford only offered 30% of degree-seeking international students (188 out of 646) financial aid, both Harvard and Yale offered aid packages to a whopping 82% of accepted international students (592/718 and 337/614, respectively). Such numbers, however, are misleading when viewed through the lens of socioeconomic inclusivity and mobility. International financial aid only works under the assumption that income and class breakdowns in the US are the same globally.
This, of course, is blatantly false. According to a recent Pew Research analysis, more than half of Americans are high income by the global standard. Another 32% were upper-middle income. Viewed inversely, a high income foreign family would either be low or middle-income in the US. Though this family’s child would likely qualify for Stanford financial aid, she could almost certainly gain entrance to an elite university in her home country without any financial burden. For example, the average tuition of a Chinese undergraduate studying at Peking University, China’s most prestigious university, would only be $13,393 (92927 yuan). At Oxford, yearly tuition is just $11,700 (9,000 pounds). Similarly, at the University of Cape Town, the average yearly tuition for bachelors of arts degree is $3,470.09 (49,435 rand). Though implementing need blind admissions could narrowly open the barriers for less wealthy families abroad, and perhaps give a select few a pathway out poverty, the financial costs of such a transition would be better spent elsewhere, namely on improving accessibility for underprivileged Americans.
Stanford’s commitment to a diverse undergraduate student body currently does and should continue to promote American applicants over international applicants. This unequal treatment does not stem from a high-minded sense of American exceptionalism or nationalism. Rather, it recognizes that Stanford’s complicity in US injustice makes it uniquely responsible for improving accessibility for underprivileged American communities. This approach is in fact codified in Stanford’s affirmative action guidelines, clarified by the Charge to the Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid (C-UAFA) in 1989. The guidelines state that in order to qualify for affirmative actions policies, “the [candidate’s] underrepresentation should result from clear historical inequalities in this country, rather than from problems of poverty, recent immigration or discrimination in some foreign country.” Under these standards, the committee reaffirmed special treatment for blacks, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans; it rejected requests for affirmative action from campus groups representing Puerto Ricans and Native Hawaiians.
This approach makes sense when viewed in light of Stanford’s own history. The Stanford admissions office did not begin seeking out black students until the mid-1960s. For example, in 1960, the entering freshman class included just two blacks, revealing Stanford’s complicity in the racial inequalities of the time. Like its Ivy counterparts, Stanford has served as a bastion for white elites for much of its history, and its intentional pursuit of affirmative action has sought to redress this unfortunate reality. Stanford also helped lead the defense of affirmative action in the Regents of California v. Bakke Supreme Court case, joining as amicus curiae with Columbia, Penn, and Harvard.
As the volume of international applicants increases, Stanford must acknowledge that its commitment is first and foremost to improving socioeconomic mobility in the United States. Despite admirable progress, 17% of Stanford students come from the top 5% of the income ladder, while 52% come from the top 20%. An abysmally low 4% of students come from the bottom 20% of the income distribution. The endowment money required for need-blind international aid, recently estimated at a staggering $350 million, would do little to actually improve socioeconomic mobility globally. Instead, it would merely benefit affluent foreign families who could easily send their children to premier institutions regardless. Last year, Stanford spent a respectable $11,461,928 in total on international financial aid, with an average aid package (over four years) of $60,968. Stanford should consider changing the way it distributes its current international aid, increasing the average aid package so as to truly help students who would benefit from an American university education.
I am not for a second doubting the tremendous value that foreign students bring to our campus, but I also fear that feel-good calls for global inclusion will obscure our university’s distinctively American responsibilities. In the age of Trump, embracing cosmopolitan ideals is more important than ever. However, treating Americans and international students without distinction in the admissions process is not the right solution to addressing inequality.