Need-blind international admissions: A question of values

Starting with this year’s incoming class, Bowdoin College, one of America’s private elite colleges, will be extending its need-blind admissions policy to international students. The decision by the small college in Brunswick, Maine, aligns the school founded in 1794 with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth and Amherst colleges.

“Ensuring access to Bowdoin education is central to our mission,” Bowdoin’s president Clayton Rose said in the statement that accompanied the decision announced on 7 July.

“This commitment to need-blind admission for our international applicants is another important part of a remarkable programme of access and affordability that only a few other colleges and universities are able to provide,” he said.

Alignment with values

The expansion of need-blind admission to international students was spearheaded by Bowdoin’s Claudia Marroquin, who became senior vice-president for admissions a year ago.

Over the course of her eight years as an international recruiter for the college in Central and South America, she had come to feel that taking international students’ financial need into account during the admissions process ran counter to the college’s mission.

“I’d see students in those countries and the talents they bring,” she told University World News, “but also having those really difficult conversations in person around: ‘Yes, you can apply. But your financial need is going to be taken into account.’ I really think that this ran counter to Bowdoin’s values writ large.

“We looked at our college through a new and better equitable lens and that was the one thing that continued to stand out for me as being very different: how we treated international student applicants.”

According to Marroquin, there has been no criticism of the decision to shift to a need-blind admissions system for international students.

“Our campus community was thrilled with the idea that we were standing behind our values and that we were truly moving forward in a way that treats all of our applicants in a similar fashion.”

Amherst College

Fifteen years earlier, the administration at Amherst College, in the western Massachusetts town that is also home to University of Massachusetts at Amherst, extended need-blind admission decisions to international students. Amherst’s decision flowed in part from the ethos of the almost 200-year-old college’s founding document.

“The founding ideal was that it [Amherst] was to be a university that would make itself available to ‘indigent young men of piety and talents’,” said dean of admission and financial aid Matthew McGann.

Although a non-denominational college, to allow Amherst to fulfil the mission of training these men for the ‘Christian ministry’ (which was understood to be Calvinist), Amherst’s benefactors established a charity fund to dispense what today is called financial aid.

At both Amherst and Bowdoin, international students’ financial needs are assessed after the students are admitted. Moneys that pay for their tuition (US$86,579), room and board (US$80,390), and other fees come from the colleges’ own funds and not state or federal grants to the colleges.

At both schools, some of the moneys available for international students were donated to the colleges specifically for international students by international alumni.

When we discussed the cost of extending full financial aid to international students, Marroquin told me she was “fully cognisant of the fact that not many institutions have the means to make a decision like this.” Bowdoin’s endowment in 2021 was US$2.72 billion, while Amherst’s was US$3.77 billion.

International students make up 7% of Bowdoin’s student body of approximately 2,000 or some 140 students. The new policy will affect approximately 35 incoming students.

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