Nearly a year ago, Irene Lee couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the letter from the University of Washington, lying flat in her mailbox. She was overjoyed. But the moment didn’t last. It was a rejection letter.
Lee, 18, was a Bothell High School senior with a 3.9 grade point average and more than 300 hours of community service. She also was the captain of the school’s badminton team. She probably was one of the few students whom the teachers deemed almost certain to get into UW.
The UW’s decision left her puzzled and demoralized.
“I really have no idea what UW is looking for,” Lee said. “Some of my classmates who have lower GPAs and no extracurricular activities were accepted by the UW.”
Not much later, Lee saw a KING-5 television report on UW admissions that helped her understand what might have happened. In that report, UW Admissions Director Philip Ballinger acknowledged that the university was taking more out-of-state students, who bring in more money, to offset budget cuts.
Accepting more international students would further diversify the UW campus. In addition, these students indirectly subsidize the cost of higher education for Washington residents, something that is critical for the UW after severe budget cuts from the state government.
Despite these international students’ contribution to the university, some resident students are worried. They are concerned that these foreign students might be crowding out in-state students.
The University of Washington admission officials are indeed letting in more international students, who pay nearly three times the tuition of a Washington resident. According to a November 2011 report by The Seattle Times, first-year students from other countries outnumbered out-of-state students last fall for the first time.
Some Washington residents think that it’s unfair for UW to admit international students just because they pay more.
“This is not the way to create a diversified campus,” UW senior Sandy Parker said. The university should not reject outstanding local students because they pay less, she added.
Things are more complicated than merely rejecting local residents. Associate Director of Operations Paul Seegart, who handles undergraduate admissions at UW, said the international students actually help make higher education possible for Washington residents. The real cost of educating a UW student is about $17,000 a year, Seegart said, and a resident pays about $10,500. An international student pays nearly three times that amount. That means one international student is subsidizing about two resident students, he said.
Seegart said the UW is admitting more Washington residents than the state funds. The UW takes as many Washington residents as it can, according to Seegart. Enrollment of international students actually makes it possible to take more students than the UW might otherwise be able to accommodate, he said.
Some resident students actually voiced their support for the ethnic diversity that comes with having more international students on campus. Jimmy Cailotto, a UW alumnus who graduated last year, said he liked having more foreign students on campus. Cailotto added that taking more international students is the school’s only solution to the budget crisis.
“It (international enrollment) is definitely an acceptable option,” Cailotto said. “I know some people have problems with that because they feel the effect of the acceptance rate of domestic students. But, with our current budget crisis, it is definitely a viable option.”
Tiger Tai, a UW graduate student, said more foreign enrollment mitigates the state’s budget crisis. Tai pointed out that international students don’t create a burden for the state. Better yet, he added, many international students outperform the resident students academically in math and science, which boosts the overall quality of the university.
But some students are afraid that the university might have lower admission criteria for the international students because they are the “saviors” of the UW’s financial crisis. They are worried that this might affect the quality of the university. Seegart said it is just the reverse.
“Now I wonder if the UW is picking its students based on their financial status instead of their qualification,” Lee said. “I hope UW’s decision will not hurt its quality in the future.”
According to the November Times story, Ballinger said that the math SAT scores of international students are well above those of U.S. applicants, averaging 714 out of 800.
Despite these students’ high academic performance, Era Schrepfer, executive director of Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, warned that language might be the main challenge that most of the UW international students face. The foundation is an independent organization that works closely with the UW to assist international students in the Seattle area.
“Language is always going to be pointed to as a challenge,” Schrepfer said. She added that the faculty and students need to have patience while dealing with language. Also, the university needs to make sure it is admitting students with sufficient English proficiency to participate equally in the university, she said.
In addition, ensuring these international students actually graduate is important, Schrepfer added. Fortunately, a statistic by UW Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity shows that international students have a higher graduation rate than U.S. students.
Despite the higher graduation rate and academic performance, international students tend to isolate themselves on campus.
Many UW international students tend to mix with friends who are also international students, especially those who come from the same country.
Stanley Tung, a UW junior from Hong Kong, said he rarely talks to local students outside of class.
“It is not about the language,” Tung said. “We simply talk about different topics. Students like me can make friends speaking in our language because there are so many of them on campus. Sometimes, I realize I have not spoken a word of English today before I go to bed, and it makes me feel as if I am still living in Asia.”
As for Irene Lee and her rejection letter from UW, there was good news in the end. She got accepted to UW Bothell, one of UW’s two main branch campuses. The other is in Tacoma.
Even though the UW needs foreign enrollment to help finance its operation and retain classes, it has to find other ways to resolve its budget crisis because UW is a public school after all, Lee said.