Beechert: The Dangers of Isolationism

by Michael Beechert | 9/21/15 6:59pm

One would think that, in light of the gradual but significant slip in the U.S. News and World Report’s national university rankings, the College would do everything in its power to attract the best and brightest students from around the world. The College has plenty of selling points — an idyllic campus, a faculty that is eager to engage with students personally and a collegial atmosphere that reduces the stress of studying at an elite university. Unfortunately, incompetent management has resulted in misguided student-life policy and a bloated administrative structure that has saddled students with ridiculous costs.

As the cost of attendance climbs into the stratosphere — the fact that the lowest tuition increase in four decades is 2.9 percent indicates long-term fiscal recklessness rather than restraint — Dartmouth continually loses its appeal to prospective students. Although middle class-students are particularly squeezed, the saving grace for many studying at the College and for those hoping to do so is a generous financial aid program. Applicants, moreover, have not needed to worry that their inability to pony up a quarter of a million dollars for a bachelor’s degree will harm their chances of being admitted. Need-blind admissions have maintained some semblance of accessibility and have consequently made the community at Dartmouth a much more interesting place.

Perhaps the most significant contribution to the College’s diversity is brought by its international students. Although they comprise less than 10 percent of the student population, international students have a visible and impactful presence on campus that is felt by the entire community. The benefit extends far beyond this campus. Due to inhospitable American visa policies, many international students return home to work after graduation. As Dartmouth alumni, their achievements reflect positively on the College and therefore enhance the College’s reputation abroad. In an increasingly globalized world, it is essential for Dartmouth to secure a stable foothold for its name abroad as an elite university. The best way to do this is to provide the best students from those parts of globe with a truly world-class education — even if they need financial aid.

The College’s recent decision to consider financial need during the admissions process for international students is therefore mind-boggling. The policy will likely lead to instances where certain applicants will be denied or waitlisted when previously they would have been accepted. As word of the new policy gets out, a significant number of international students from non-affluent families will simply save themselves the application fee and apply elsewhere. Many of these students, sadly enough, will have the talent, drive and potential to succeed at and beyond the College. Instead, they will accept offers from universities that we like to consider our “peers,” such as Amherst College and Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities, which continue to review international applications without taking financial need into consideration. For those applicants, the unique characteristics that could justifiably lead a student to choose the College over any of the aforementioned institutions will no longer matter, and our reputation abroad will suffer accordingly.

The announcement of the change in policy was accompanied by an unsurprisingly vague and inadequate justification. Interim dean of admissions and financial aid Paul Sunde inexplicably stated that shifting to a “need-aware” policy was part of an effort to stabilize international enrollment and develop a more “robust” class. If “stable” and “robust” are used in a purely socioeconomic sense, then this might be true, but I suspect that the admissions office simply dipped into the well-used bag of administrative platitudes when crafting its statement. Appeals to enhanced diversity are nonsensical on their face — there is no conceivable way that a smaller and more homogeneous applicant pool could yield a more diverse class. And the money that the College saves by becoming less accessible to international students will be no more than a drop in the enormous bucket that is Dartmouth’s overinflated annual budget. One would hope that an institution as rich as the College would have the sense to use its resources to market itself to those who want to be a part of our community and, by extension, advance its own interests. It has shamefully done the exact opposite.