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Foreign Aid: What Columbia’s Need-Aware Policy Means for International Applicants

Most copies of the February issue of The Blue and White have been snatched up, but here’s looking forward to the March issue, on campus next week.  Today, managing editor Anna Bahr continues her three-part series on the experience of student debt at Columbia. To review the first piece, which focuses on taking out loans as an undergraduate, please click here, and look forward to the final installment, addressing debt at the School of General Studies, in the upcoming issue.


Illustration by Juliette Chen, CC ’16

Jean Pierre Salendres, CC ’14, applied to 15 universities. With the exception of Dartmouth, he checked off all of the Ivies on his Common Application. Of all his acceptance letters, only those from Columbia and University of Pennsylvania offered him financial aid—a surprisingly small handout from schools which publicly boast the magnanimity of their aid programs. Beyond the prestige, students hope for acceptance at these schools because of their nearly comprehensive coverage for undergraduates. But the generous aid boasted about in admissions pamphlets comes with an asterisk. Where American students are guaranteed a financially objective evaluation of their applications, international students have no such luck.

The principle behind need-blind admissions gestures toward affirmative action: it is intended to ensure socio-economic diversity, to address the growing income gap, and to “level the playing field” for disadvantaged applicants. Very few universities in this country offer any form of need-blind admission. Most that do are selective colleges with deep pockets; and most of these guarantee at least meeting “demonstrated need.” But it’s a pricey policy. Wesleyan University recently announced that it would end its need-blind admissions because of its high cost. Grinnell College plans to review its aid policies because its process is financially unsustainable.

But even among the universities that choose to omit financial need from admissions decisions rarely extend such amnesty to their international applicants—for these kids, one’s ability to pay for school plays into the merit of his application. The perception among international students, says Jean Pierre, is that the school principally admits applicants from wealthy backgrounds, instead of a diverse cross-section of smart, diligent kids who may have felt discouraged from even applying because of low family income. Emilia Rearick* CC ’13, is Mexican. She only applied to schools that offered need-blind applications for international students after a high school friend in need of financial assistance was accepted at every need-blind schools to which she applied, but rejected by their need-aware equivalents. Emilia sees this as no coincidence.

Of all American universities, only six offer need-blind admission and full-need financial aid to international students: Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Yale. Although Columbia makes no such allowance, both Jean Pierre and Emilia, both Mexican citizens, were able to capitalize on a since-retired program in which Canadian and Mexican citizens were admitted based on a need-blind process. Our continental cousins lost that privilege after the 2011 admissions year.

Because they do not qualify for federal aid, needy international students who do not receive sufficient funds from Columbia often face graduation with debt accrued solely from private loans. As Jean Pierre puts it, “International students must either be loaded or rely on very tough systems of loans that make sure that we go into the private sector, despite wishes of working for, maybe, our governments back home. The bigger the debt, the bigger the incentive to stay in the US and continue the brain drain cycle—at least when it comes to developing countries like mine.”

He had hoped to intern back home in Mexico last summer, but the job didn’t pay enough for him to meet Columbia’s expected summer contribution from students who receive financial aid, a minimum of $2,870 USD for sophomores. So, instead of working in local government, his summer work of choice, Jean Pierre, picked up a more lucrative job in marketing at First Databank. I spoke with a sophomore in CC who was expected to pay $4,000 over the three month summer—a sum amounting to $500 more than the total savings a student could make working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, at a $7.25/hr minimum wage job. This summer payment increases for each year spent at Columbia and can be difficult to meet for a non-citizen looking for temporary work in the US and also in need of an additional visa. Applying for the summer work often requires an F1-OPT visa, which allows international students to work in the US for 12 months total, as long as the job is related to their major–a requirement which directly impacts the choice students make in their academic concentrations. Why major in English when you can fulfill your summer contribution more easily at Morgan Stanley than Random House? As Emilia understands it, “I was lucky enough to be interested in economics and consulting, so I personally did not struggle to find summer or full-time positions, but I do know that if your interests lies in anything beyond [those] fields…you’re pretty much screwed.”


Illustration by Juliette Chen, CC16

If you don’t get screwed by working restrictions, there’s always the financial market. Due to erratic fluctuations in the exchange rate, the amount a student pays can change drastically from the time they apply for aid to when tuition is due. To manage this unpredictability, Jessica Marinaccio, Dean of Financial Aid and Undergraduate admissions explains that Columbia uses “exchange rates determined by the College Board in our needs analysis” which are set each academic year. In the summer of 2011, Emilia did not receive her aid package until mid-August. In conjunction with the steady devaluation of the peso, the exchange rate had jumped from 11.65 pesos/dollar in May to 12.64 pesos/dollar. Hypothetically, had Emilia’s family contribution been $10,000 USD, from May to September the cost would increase from 116,500 pesos to 126,500 pesos—a nearly 10 percent increase.

While Emilia’s family has managed to pay her full amount, the unpredictability of the market is never far from her mind: “It is definitely a source of stress not knowing where the exchange rate will land…[Our family budget] was tighter for sure after the Peso devalued.” Despite problems with the exchange rate, Emilia has never been forced to take out a loan and feels “Columbia has been generous in its aid and true to its word.”

Jean Pierre, on the other hand, considers himself the rare exception. He received a comprehensive aid package—his family’s contribution only amounted to around $2,500 a year. Columbia guarantees to meet “demonstrated need” once a student is admitted, regardless of one’s country of origin. But because his sister, as an international, received no aid from her school, most of his family’s funds are allocated to her tuition. Thus, the money that Columbia expected would be available for his familial contribution is being funneled to tuition at a different school with less generous aid. As a result, Jean Pierre will take out at least $10,000 in private loans to cover his “Expected Family Contribution” to Columbia. Had he applied without the now-dismantled Canadian/Mexican need-blind exception, he doubts he would have been accepted. “My situation is a very lucky one. I know people that did not fare as well. I perhaps represent a few good things that are slowly going away at Columbia, and the climate for international students is getting tougher in terms of financial aid. The international population expands, but not the equal opportunity for families with different incomes.”

According to an April 2012 report by the International Students and Scholars Office, in the last eight years, University-wide, international student admits have increased by 60.1 percent. In that same window, Columbia’s income from international students has skyrocketed by over 120 percent. This translates to the university nearly tripling its net income from international student tuition, from $137 million in 2004 to $304 million in 2011. And while Columbia guarantees “to meet 100 percent of your demonstrated financial aid once admitted,” the number of international students receiving aid has plummeted by nearly 10 percent to cover only 23.8 percent of the population.

It would appear Columbia has offset the costs of its ever expanding need-blind admissions for American students by upping its annual admission of internationals, whose prospective applications are read with family income in mind. Asked directly about the increase in April, Columbia College Dean James Valentini assured the Columbia Daily Spectator that the College “does not admit international students as a means of generating revenue.”

The numbers echo a trend becoming standard across the country. The University of California system, the American exemplar of affordable, superior public education, admitted 43 percent more out-of-state and international students than last year, significantly boosting its efforts to reach out to those higher-paying freshmen. Those students pay an annual $23,000 more than in-state students—a sum that could help to smooth over the state-wide education budget crisis.

University President Lee Bollinger admitted to Spec in April, “We do not have sufficient financial aid for international students. And as you gradually [increase the number of international admits] and you don’t have enough financial aid, it’s not surprising that the numbers you cite are going to go in the directions they are.”

Agreeing to pay for an exorbitantly priced American education—particularly when compared to its international equivalent (an undergraduate degree at Paris’s Sciences Po, for example, costs $13,000 annually; Columbia College currently charges $45,208—and that’s without factoring in universal healthcare)—speaks to both the quality and clout of a degree from the more prestigious US colleges. Columbia has made its concession to a wealthy international community clear: its commitment to being a global university entails catering to a global elite. But until the same financial flexibility is afforded to international applicants as their American counterparts, Columbia’s energized response to globalization, it’s open commitment to diversity, feels shallowly geographic. For now, the influx of internationals  seems to serve a statistical purpose; Columbia, on paper, is more “global” than ever before, but with 76 percent of our international students requiring no aid, is the university’s responsibility to promoting diversity of thought and experience threatened?

There is no doubt that extending need-blind admissions to the world is an unreasonable financial burden for which there is no quick fix. Providing for the depth of intellectual diversity Columbia aspires to cannot be solved by shifting some figures around the annual budget. Last April, Dean Valentini told the Spectator, “if we had need-blind admissions throughout the world, we’d end up with a whole different kind of college than we have now.” Isn’t that the idea?

*Some names in this piece have been changed.

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Im tired of paying for other people to go to this university.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Funny, we’re tired of other people buying our spots.

      1. ^ says:

        @^ You, my friend, are an entitled prick. Why is it that I need to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans while some bimbo from an arbitrarily determined lower income bracket graduates scott free with a bombastic sense of righteousness and a degree in medieval studies on my dime?

        1. same anon says:

          @same anon @^:

          You’ve got to be trolling, and you’re not describing me (or anyone) but I’ll elaborate: I hold the idea that Columbia is the top of the meritocracy, and if your parents bought your way through life then you’re either perverting that or belong here but are obligated to share. That wouldn’t make you a bad person…but we should all have the opportunity that you do.

          In case you didn’t read the article, Anna Bahr is describing how Columbia does a pretty terrible job of executing this goal in practice so take it up with our stingy endowment bursars Kasdin and Coatsworth.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous $10,000 total in loans for 4 years of undergrad? get any job (even being a gym teacher) when you graduate and you’ll make that much back. there’s nothing to complain about.

    if international students are so keen on working back in their home countries, they can pay a lot less for tuition at an institution back at home and not worry about the exorbitant tuition costs here. or they can swallow the high tuition but take a job in the private sector here. kids here need to figure out what they want out of their educations.

    1. Jean Pierre says:

      @Jean Pierre I do not complain about my situation. On the contrary, I give many thanks everyday for the opportunity that Columbia has given me. I respect the institution for what it has given me, the opportunity to study at a university of this caliber. Nonetheless, when Ana asked me if I wanted to be featured in this piece I agreed since I wanted to comment on a bigger issue. Cases like mine are disappearing and it is touger for low-income international syudents to get where we both are today, regardless of their academic potential. Now, I did have to get that job because as an international student I have strict limits of how much in loans I can take out (no federal loans allowed). In short, I could not complain about a situation that I am thankful for everyday since I was accepted! :)

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Say what you want, but Columbia still offers one of the best financial packages to both US and international students in the world.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous As long as you aren’t in GS.

      1. GS '14 says:

        @GS '14 “Most awful” is still, technically, the best in a certain category.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Why should we be educating foreigners for free at out ivy league schools? Especially if they just leave and go back to their home country. I want to know what top world universities that I can go for for free? I want to know what other country is going to pay for me to be educated in their top universities for free?

    1. Anon says:

      @Anon @Anonymous: Blame your dear Democrats for wanting to keep illegal Hispanic people in (oh, let the pity votes roll in, in the long term), and not reforming the immigration system.

      Your system of throwing International kids out within a few months after they graduate sucks. Stop complaining.

      Besides, it’s not your govt that is giving the Intl kids money. Most of the financial aid for Intl students comes from other sources, like fundraisers.

    2. CC-Alum says:

      @CC-Alum You would be surprised how many international students would like to stay around in the US after graduation and work, thus also paying taxes and making money to give back to the school. Once your OPT runs out (max 12 months total) you are either lucky enough to work for a large enough company that will sponsor your H1B visa or greencard, have won a greencard in the lottery or it’s straight back home for you, no matter how good you are and how much you add value to the US society.

    3. CC says:

      @CC This is so ridiculously selfish and misguided. In today’s world that’s so connected, it’s ignorant to assume that an educated person in a country that is not yours will never have the ability to affect your life in some way down the line. I personally feel that educational institutions should provide access to affordable education for any individual regardless of where they come from, because ultimately we are all part of the same global community and there can never be any harm in educating one another.

    4. somehow says:

      @somehow I would prefer spend money on educating foreigners than on invading their countries.

  • Come on! says:

    @Come on! I’m tired of these articles lamenting the lack of financial support towards international students. I understand the attraction of an American university like Columbia; however, international students can always attend their respective home universities with much less debt and stress. International students can always pursue masters or doctoral degrees in the U.S., which offers more aid to their students. I’m not trying to sound ethnocentric, but American schools should consolidate their resources on its OWN students before financing international students. Average American student debt is estimated at $27,253!!! STOP COMPLAINING!

  • international student says:

    @international student I am an international student on financial aid at Columbia. This article really hits a spot. Decisions to attend school in different parts of the world differ from people but many of the international students on financial aid are from developing countries with struggling university systems. The issue is not that we are whining for no reason: it is that Columbia made promises of fulfilling financial need once accepted ( a decision that played an important role in deciding to attend this school); and then after we are accepted we realize how screwed we really are. One example: my parents have 6 dependents. Columbia decided last semester that my parents contribution should be 4,000 dollars ( a fifth of my family yearly income), add to it my summer work expectation and you realize how bad this is. During the summer most of us cannot afford to stay in the USA ( because of the housing costs which are higher than a ticket back home) so we go back home and take on internships that do not pay enough to cover the work expectation. Obviously my parents cannot possibly pay that much money to the school so I take out loans and work. I know many people who work 20+ hours a week and/or take on (illegal) offcampus jobs.
    Had we known how bad this would be we might have changed our decision to attend Columbia. This is what most of us are mad about.

    1. CC '14 says:

      @CC '14 With a Columbia degree you’ll make back that money in no time. Don’t fret, kiddo.

    2. If you can't afford it says:

      @If you can't afford it Go Back! Simple. Your countries provide very affordable alternatives. This attitude is a symptom of the type of entitlement that is destroying Western European and Latin American countries. Not in my country. If you think 20+ hours a week is a lot, I’m afraid America isn’t the place for you. In America, we don’t have two months paid vacation we don’t have shortened work weeks, and most importantly, we don’t sit on our asses and reap the benefits of our neighbors’ work. Be thankful for the aid you have as if it were up to us individuals with the kind of debt many of us carry, you and many domestic students would not be receiving a dime. Every day, you should be getting on your knees on broken glass and thanking Columbia along with the students who pay for you to attend this school for allowing you to join them in their country and more specifically Morningside Heights. If not, pack a bag and kiss my ass.

      1. uh says:

        @uh They come from Mexico, which does not appear to offer public employees two months of paid vacation.

  • CC 14 says:

    @CC 14 I feel you, but at the same time, Im an American and when I applied to Columbia both my brothers were in college, my mother had just got a house with a 600 thousand dollar mortgage, and was paying for it all as a single mother and Columbia STILL gave me no financial aid.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I find this hard to believe. Either she’s pulling in a LOT of money, your brothers are getting a ton of aid elsewhere, or there is some source of extra assets in your family. Also, if she’s a single mother sending 3 kids through college, maybe taking a 600,000 mortgage isn’t such a great idea?

      1. CC 14 says:

        @CC 14 Find it hard to believe if you would like but it is what happened. One of my brothers paid out of state tuition at a state school with no aid and the other went to school in Boston with no aid because their aid packages were given before I went to school and she got the house. We are a family of approx $100,000 a year, so we would be completely fine with the house and 3 college payments if Columbia had given a little hand- which they chose not to. We had no home and were re-assigned to the United States to DC, where homes are obviously all that price, and my family should have the right to buy a home, instead of us being criticized since it was not some lavish purchase but a necessity, and we thought that Columbia would give me something even without buying the house.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Send a letter to fin aid office, you might even get your package reevaluated for this semester. There’s no way this is true with 100k income and one house unless there was a mistake on your fafsa.

        2. It's a Damn shame says:

          @It's a Damn shame And yet much of your mother’s hard-earned tuition money goes toward educating people who pay nothing at this school.

          1. no says:

            @no His mother’s money goes towards paying the costs of *his* tuition. Donors are covering the cost for people who pay no money. Everything that practically exists at this place is the result of someone’s generosity or liberal philanthropy anyway. Somehow I doubt that you will be making a single charitable donation in the future.

  • -- says:

    @-- meanwhile I’ll graduate with 70k or so :(

  • Yeah i know says:

    @Yeah i know I get that the market is awful for international students, but many of us domestic students still have to full-pay for American education and can’t afford to do it, or have parents that wouldn’t fund us. For example, if your parents decide to use their income to buy a new pool instead of for your education, short of becoming an emancipated minor, there’s nothing you can do. The average American student debt is 20,000 ish ,talk less of the average GS student debt, i’d like to see more scholarship opportunities for us over here too.

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