By Tamar Lewin, NYT, 10 Mar 2012
Students from China, including Rui Liu, left, make up 11 percent of the nearly 5,800 freshmen at the University of Washington this year.
SEATTLE — This is the University of Washington’s new math: 18 percent of its freshmen come from abroad, most from China. Each pays tuition of $28,059, about three times as much as students from Washington State. And that, according to the dean of admissions, is how low-income Washingtonians — more than a quarter of the class — get a free ride.
With state financing slashed by more than half in the last three years, university officials decided to pull back on admissions offers to Washington residents, and increase them to students overseas.
That has rankled some local politicians and parents, a few of whom have even asked Michael K. Young, the university president, whether their children could get in if they paid nonresident tuition. “It does appeal to me a little,” he said.
There is a widespread belief in Washington that internationalization is the key to the future, and Mr. Young said he was not at all bothered that there were now more students from other countries than from other states. (Out-of-state students pay the same tuition as foreign students.)
“Is there any advantage to our taking a kid from California versus a kid from China?” he said. “You’d have to convince me, because the world isn’t divided the way it used to be.”
If the university’s reliance on full-freight Chinese students to balance the budget echoes the nation’s dependence on China as the largest holder of American debt, well, said the dean of admissions, Philip A. Ballinger, “this is a way of getting some of that money back.”
By the reckoning of the Institute of International Education, foreign students in the United States contribute about $21 billion a year to the national economy, including $463 million here in Washington State. But the influx affects more than just the bottom line — campus culture, too, is changing.
While the University of Washington’s demographic shifts have been sharper and faster — international students were 2 percent of the freshmen in 2006 — similar changes are under way at flagship public universities across the nation: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and University of California campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles all had at least 10 percent foreign freshmen this academic year, more than twice that of five years ago. And at top private schools including Columbia University, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania, at least 15 percent of this year’s freshmen are from other countries.
All told, the number of undergraduates from China alone has soared to 57,000 from 10,000 five years ago. At the University of Washington, 11 percent of the nearly 5,800 freshmen are from China.
A few places have begun to charge international students additional fees besides tuition: at Purdue University, it was $1,000 this year and will double next year; engineering undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had to pay a $2,500 surcharge this year.
“We’re in something akin to the gold rush, a frontier-style environment where colleges and universities, like prospectors in the 1800s, realize that there is gold out there,” said David Hawkins, the director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “While it’s the admissions offices butting up against the issues most right now, every department after them, every faculty member who comes into contact with international students, is going to have to recalibrate as institutions become more international. I see a cascading list of challenges.”
They have already begun here at Washington’s flagship university, where orientation leaders last fall had to explain, repeatedly, the rigorous campus recycling practices, reinforce no-smoking rules and, at the make-your-own-sundae bar, help people get the hang of the whipped-cream cans.
But there are deeper issues, like how much latitude professors should give in written assignments.
“We recognize that people from other countries often speak with an accent,” said John Webster, director of writing at the university’s College of Arts and Science. “If we’re truly going to be a global university, which I think is a terrific thing, we have to recognize that they may write with an accent as well.”
For example, because Mandarin has one pronunciation for “he,” “she” and “it” and nothing like “a” or “the,” many Chinese speakers struggle with pronouns and articles. And English verb forms, like past participles, gerunds and infinitives, can be difficult to master, since Chinese verbs are unchanging.
Given that Chinese students’ writing will be “accented” for years, Mr. Webster believes that professors should focus less on trying to make their English technically correct and more on making their essays understandable and interesting. But he knows this could be a controversial issue, reminiscent of the Ebonics debate decades ago.
The international influx is likely to keep growing, in part because of the booming recruiting industry that has sprung up overseas. That includes the use of commissioned agents, who help students through the admissions process — and sometimes write their application essays. Amid controversy over such agents, Mr. Hawkins’s group has named a commission, to meet for the first time next month, to formulate a policy regarding recruiters.
Nationwide, higher education financing has undergone a profound shift in recent years, with many public institutions that used to get most of their financing from state governments now relying on tuition for more than half their budgets. But legislators and taxpayers still feel deep ownership of the state institutions created to serve homegrown students — and worry that something is awry when local high achievers, even valedictorians, are rejected by the campuses they have grown up aspiring to.
“My constituents want a slot for their kid,” said Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat state representative from Seattle. “I hear it at the grocery store every day, and I’ve got four young kids myself, so I get it.
“We are struggling with capacity, access and affordability,” he said. “But international engagement is part of our state’s DNA. We have a special economic and social relationship with China, and I am happy to have so many Chinese students at the university.”
Still, Jim Allen, a counselor at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore, Wash., an affluent suburb north of Seattle, said: “Families are frustrated. There aren’t as many private colleges here as in the East, and a lot of families expect their children to go to U.W.”
Unlike many other state universities, the University of Washington did no overseas recruiting before this academic year, when it staged recruiting tours in several countries. So the rapid growth in international applications — to more than 6,000 this year from 1,541 in 2007, with China by far the largest source — was something of a surprise. Last spring, another surprise was the percentage who accepted offers of admission: 42 percent decided to enroll, up from 35 percent the previous year.
“As best I can make out, it’s just word of mouth,” said Mr. Ballinger, the admissions dean. “We’re well known in China, we’re highly rated on the Shanghai rankings, and we have a lot of contacts.”
Applications from abroad present some special challenges. Because the SAT is not given in mainland China, the university does not require international students to take it. Although it does not pay recruiting agents, Mr. Ballinger said he knew many applicants hired them, so the university does not consider Chinese applicants’ personal essays or recommendations. (Yes, he also knows that some affluent applicants in the United States get extensive help from paid private counselors.)
Some in-state students said they had trouble knowing what to make of the fact that international students, on the one hand, help underwrite financial aid, and on the other, take up seats that might have gone to their high school classmates.
“Morally, I feel the university should accept in-state students first, then other American students, then international students,” said Farheen Siddiqui, a freshman from Renton, Wash., just south of Seattle. “When I saw all the stories about U.W. taking more international students, I thought, ‘Damn, I’m a minority now for being in-state.’ ”
Actually, nearly two-thirds of Ms. Siddiqui’s classmates are from Washington, but her inaccurate sense of the population was echoed by all of the three dozen freshmen interviewed — including those from other states and from China. Most, like Ms. Siddiqui, estimated that half to two-thirds of the class was international.
Ms. Siddiqui cited a psychology class in which the professor asked the 600-plus students about the nature of the families they grew up in. With clickers recording the responses, Ms. Siddiqui said, about 60 percent said their families were “collectivist,” rather than “individualist,” something she perceived as more Asian than American.
Alison Luo, who grew up in Chongqing, a major city in southwest China, had mixed feelings about the trend that she is part of.
“Before I came, I saw the online chatting in China, with hundreds of people coming to the University of Washington,” Ms. Luo said. “I was kind of worried about that. I paid to study abroad, and it was almost like I was studying in China.”