Freshman applications to many U.S. colleges and universities are rising this year, fueled by a surge of international students, even as costs increase and the number of U.S. high school graduates declines.
At Tufts University, international applications climbed 12 percent from a year ago and have more than doubled since 2004. The number of foreign students seeking admission to the University of California, Berkeley jumped about 22 percent this year, while the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League member, reported a 38 percent increase since 2010.
U.S. universities are searching overseas to fill slots with more students who can pay full tuition as the pool of domestic prospects declines and the annual cost to attend at some private colleges tops $60,000. Schools are boosting their recruiting staffs and travel budgets to pursue more international applicants.
“Having students from overseas just makes sense,” said Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admission at Medford, Massachusetts-based Tufts. “If the American population is going to decline, then the global population represents another source of high-quality students.”
The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education said this month that the number of U.S. high-school graduates is expected to drop through the rest of the decade, raising questions about how colleges will recruit and enroll students. The Midwest and Northeast will experience the largest declines, according to projections in the Jan. 10 report.
International students, most of whom pay full tuition, help a college’s bottom line as states cut funding to public universities and private universities struggle with lower endowment returns and rising costs.
At UC Berkeley, international and out-of-state students pay a supplemental fee of almost $23,000 a year, on top of the $11,220 tuition that Californians pay, according to the college’s website.
Universities are marketing to foreign students for pricing reasons, though increasingly those admitted are requiring a discount, said John Nelson, a managing director at Moody’s Investors Service.
“Even at a discount, the international student provides more marginal revenue to a college that otherwise might not have any added revenue from resident students who are in short supply in some parts of the country,” Nelson said in an e-mail.
Competition for slots at selective colleges has always been fierce, even before international applications picked up pace. Last year, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, accepted just 5.9 percent of applicants last year, Penn 12.3 percent, and both Tufts and Berkeley 21 percent.
The increase in foreign applications doesn’t necessarily mean tougher acceptance standards for Americans because international applicants may be vying against each other, said Sally Stevens, associate director of college guidance at the Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
“You can’t leap to the conclusion that it’s more competitive for U.S. kids,” Stevens said in an interview. “I’m not sure these universities want to become so overweighted with foreign students at the undergraduate level that they lose the ambiance they’re trying to create.”
China often dominates schools’ foreign applications. Tufts received 708 applications from China this year compared with 39 in 2004, Coffin said. The college, which has bolstered its international recruiting staff 10-fold to 10 people since about 2004, began recruiting in Africa some five years ago, and admissions officers also travel to Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Unlike most colleges, Tufts meets the financial need of foreign students that it admits.
Penn started recruiting outside the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions decades ago and also looks internationally, Eric Furda, dean of undergraduate admissions, said in an interview. The Philadelphia-based school received 5,689 international applications this year, up 94 percent from 2006.
The gains in overseas applicants helped Penn stave off a decline in total applications this year. The school received 31,244, according to preliminary data, -- an increase of just 26 from last year, Furda said.
Georgetown University, in Washington, had a similar experience. Total applications dipped less than 1 percent this year, though the decline would have been greater without a 10 percent increase in international applications, according to Charles Deacon, the dean of admissions.
Overseas applications are partly driven by rapid population growth in the sending countries, Nelson at Moody’s said.
“Some of the increase relates to the pure demographics of the sending countries, not just more aggressive marketing by U.S. colleges,” Nelson said.
University of California
Total freshman applications to Berkeley, near San Francisco, climbed 9.7 percent, the school said in a statement.
The nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California system, which also includes UCLA and UC San Diego, drew 18,659 international applicants, a gain of 34 percent from a year ago. The increase builds on a 66 percent surge the year before.
At Duke University, applications from foreign students this have risen by a greater percentage than domestic ones over the past few years, Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, said in an interview. Duke, based in Durham, North Carolina, doesn’t release statistics for international applications.
“The American post-secondary education system is very appealing to a lot of individuals outside the U.S.,” Guttentag said. “It makes sense that they would cast their eyes here.”