Top US colleges like Yale, Harvard seek Chinese students from outside the economic elite

By , on February 1, 2015


Widener Library, Harvard University. Joseph Williams / Flickr.
Widener Library, Harvard University. Joseph Williams / Flickr.

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—Top American universities like Yale and Harvard, widely regarded overseas as places only for children of the rich and powerful, are increasing efforts to attract the best international students, regardless of their financial backgrounds.

With more undergraduates coming from abroad than ever, the Ivy League universities that have worked to overcome reputations for serving only children of the elite in the U.S. are trying to do the same the world over withtravel, novel recruiting strategies and some help from the U.S. State Department.

Yale sophomore Yupei Guo, for one, does not fit the mould of the traditional Ivy Leaguer from China: Her journalist parents are neither wealthy nor members of the governing elite. Although university grants cover much of her tuition, many people she meets around New Haven assume she came from a much different background to reach the campus of Gothic buildings.

“I did get asked if I were some sort of distant royal family member, which I’m not,” she said.

No country is receiving more attention than China, which sends far more students to the U.S. than any other country. Nearly 275,000 students came from China last year, 31 per cent of all international students, according to the Institute of International Education.

As China has grown more prosperous, many U.S. colleges have stepped up recruiting there, seeking revenue-generating students who can pay their full way. A small number of schools pledge, like Yale, to meet the full financial need of admitted international students, and for them it is a matter of making that known around the country of 1.3 billion people.

A student-run organization at Harvard University holds college-style seminars annually for dozens of Chinese high school students, offering financial aid to help draw from all the country’s provinces. At Yale, which in 1854 graduated the first Chinese person to earn a degree from a U.S. college, international students are deputized as “ambassadors” to talk with students while home on break. Admissions officers from both schools regularlytravel to China.

Yale extended its need-blind admissions policy to international students in 2001, and Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said the makeup of students from China and other countries has since changed dramatically. International students have gone from representing 3 per cent of the student body, mostly from high-income families, to 11 per cent, with greater diversity.

“The diversity of our international student body has really exploded, frankly to a greater extent than our U.S. socio-economic diversity has over time,” Quinlan said. He said most of the dozens of Chinese undergrads receive financial aid at Yale, where tuition, room and board cost nearly $60,000 a year.

Guo attended a selective public high school in Beijing and learned from upperclassmen the names of U.S. schools with need-blind admissions—Yale, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Dartmouth and Amherst. She visited Yale during high school—on a U.S. visit for model United Nations—and felt energized by the posters advertising campus activities.

At home, her departure was met with a mix of admiration and scorn.

Yale is a celebrated name in China, where her acceptance prompted calls from reporters. But Guo said there is also a stigma that comes with attending college in the U.S., as though those leaving failed to fit into the Chinese system. And there is bitterness: Financial concerns prevent many of her friends from going to college at all.

Two Chinese real estate moguls, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, are prodding American universities to do more by giving them money to support low-income students from China. Through their SOHO China Foundation, they so far have awarded $15 million to Harvard and $10 million to Yale.

The admissions directors at Yale and Harvard say the gifts align with their goals of encouraging more Chinese students to apply. The universities say it’s about promoting empathy and creating the diversity sought by students and faculty.