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.