Stanford Should Not Prioritize Americans Over International Students

Last week, Berber Jin argued in The Stanford Review that we should be more skeptical about need-blind admissions for international students, a proposal recently accepted by the university administration. He makes this case through falsely framing financial aid as a zero-sum game; he seems to believe that providing more assistance to the international community must come at the expense of helping underprivileged Americans. Like most Review articles, Berber’s piece presents itself as a hard-truth response to the supposedly misguided “feel-good” worldview of the left. But a closer look reveals just how misleading many of his claims really are. If Stanford wants to bring together the world’s brightest young minds and promote global social justice, it has to begin with need-blind admissions for international students.

To start, it’s unlikely that the “university’s commitment to growing the endowment to accommodate its [international] need-blind admissions policy would trade-off with better spent efforts to invest in existing financial aid for underprivileged American students.” Stanford predicted it would take a $350 million expansion of the endowment to make need-blind international admissions viable. While at first glance this seems a big figure, it is very probable that contributions to this endowment would come from donors with a particular interest helping poorer international students – say, a wealthy Chilean more interested in helping fellow Latin Americans than in assisting kids who already live in the wealthiest nation in the world. By the same token, American philanthropists are probably more attuned to the needs of underprivileged Americans. Put simply, there is no conflict between raising money for domestic and international financial aid – they can and should coexist thanks to donors of different profiles.

“Trade-offs” aside, Berber spends a lot of energy insisting that the foreign elite in each country would be the single biggest beneficiary of need-blind admissions for internationals. To make his case, he presents some facts about the economic composition of our international students. But true or false, the perception that a “privileged and wealthy minority” is currently overrepresented among international students doesn’t really tell us anything about the potential of need-blind admissions. So Berber has to rely on two other premises: that a good part of other countries’ elites would require financial aid to attend Stanford (true for most of the underdeveloped world), and that only this elite is in a position to apply to Stanford (somewhat speculative). Of course people from better off backgrounds are in a better position to apply to elite colleges. But low-income foreign applicants are not as much of an exception as Berber would like us to believe. It’s not hard to come up with a few counterexamples to these claims among both developed and underdeveloped countries.

Take Germany, for instance: it isn’t hard to imagine that most Germans are equipped to “speak English fluently, pass standardized exams, and be well-versed in the complicated logistics of the Stanford application process.” Advanced English is part of public-school instruction, PISA scores show that German students have better education levels than those in the U.S., and Germans especially are not intimidated by “complicated logistics” of any sort. It would be intellectually dishonest to claim that non-elite Germans are ill equipped to apply to Stanford. The main reason few Germans do apply is that they have world-class universities in their own backyard that are free of charge except for living costs. This is not to say that students at “prestigious international schools” have no advantage over others, in particular given the incentive and support they get for applying to American colleges. But this inequality of opportunity could easily be amended were Stanford to institute a need-blind admissions policy coupled with larger outreach programs in Germany. There is no doubt that this would attract more low-income and middle-class Germans to enrich our campus both in talent and diversity.

The social situation is much different in Brazil, but Berber’s argument fails to hold there too. Everyone knows that my country’s huge educational disparity makes upper or upper-middle class Brazilians overrepresented in Stanford’s applicant population. Still, the number of first-generation or low-income students applying to U.S. schools there is far from “slim.” There are nonprofits dedicated to giving talented students from all backgrounds the means to apply to the best American schools, and it goes without saying that academic excellence is not dictated by wealth. This means that Stanford consistently accepts a significantly higher percentage of Brazilian low-income students than that of the country’s applicant pool. In the end of the day, is this enough to make Brazilians representative of Brazilian society at large? Not really. But need-aware admissions are part of this problem: for example, many talented Brazilians have been lost to Harvard or other Ivy League schools because of bad financial aid deals over the past few years. In Brazil’s case – and no doubt others’ – it is clear that our university’s financial aid policy affects much more than just “upper-middle class children,” and that adopting need-blind international admissions can be used to increase campus socioeconomic diversity.

But even in face of all this, Berber isn’t really wrong in claiming that need-blind admissions for internationals “would do little to actually improve global socioeconomic mobility.” He just fails to mention that the same thing is true for domestic admissions: accepting a “select few” American students in itself will not upend the United States’ social inequalities either. Admissions promise to combat social injustice in a different way. We hope that by admitting the world’s most talented students, our university will empower those most able to change their communities for the better. And at the same time, we should attempt to make this group as diverse as possible, so that the largest possible array of communities can receive these students’ contributions in time. To ignore international students’ potential to promote global social justice through a Stanford education is to deny Americans’ potential to do to the same in the United States. And nothing short of unconditional need-blind admissions – domestic or international – will give Stanford the means to meet its responsibility of making the world a better place.

But imagine that Berber’s claims were true. Say that financial aid to internationals did nothing but benefit foreign elites, that it did take away resources from underprivileged Americans, and that the admissions office had no obligations to foreigners whatsoever. It is still unclear why internationals should bear the burden of reducing inequality in Stanford admissions. Why doesn’t Berber consider the end of legacy admissions? Why does he denounce Stanford’s links to Eton and the Singapore American School without mentioning Stanford’s links with, say, Exeter? It is the American elite, not foreigners, that share a burden for the American historical inequalities Berber seems so eager to correct.


Daniel Ferreira

Photo: The western archway of the Stanford University Main Quad, © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

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