Questioning Amherst’s International Admissions

200,000 RMB. That is how much a Chinese high school senior would pay a Shanghai-based consulting agency to apply to U.S. colleges. 200,000 RMB is about $33,000 and more than five times the 2012 Chinese GDP per capita. Coincidentally co-directed by an Amherst alum, this agency advertises its admission results to attract prospective customers. Along with two competitors, the company has advertised online a total of 12 Amherst College admits since 2010 . Even if some of the admits ended up attending other colleges, 12 is still a disturbingly high number given that the College only admits about a dozen Chinese international students annually, and that the current number of Chinese residents among the Amherst student body is 28 .

Such agencies in a booming Chinese educational market are becoming increasingly lucrative and well informed about U.S. undergraduate admission. Their services range from providing SAT prep to drafting personal statements, and they charge within a couple thousand dollars to what is comparable to the cost of attending Amherst for a year. While some of these agencies are less ethically dubious than others, the consultants across the board engage in application fraud and exploit information asymmetry between U.S. colleges and Chinese applicants for profit. According to a 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education article, as the population of Chinese undergraduates in the U.S. has tripled in the past decade, “90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high-school transcripts.” It would be simplistic and wrong, however, to attribute such fraud to the ethics of Chinese applicants. Instead, when faced with the information asymmetry presented by language barriers and the lack of college counselors, many Chinese applicants are pressured by peers or parents into using these services.

Expensive consulting agencies with “insider” perspectives, like the Shanghai one mentioned at the outset of this article, are likely to crowd out qualified applicants with less financial resources. Looking back, I am amazed that I could even be admitted to Amherst College without the help of any consulting agency, which I chose not to use and which my family probably couldn’t have afforded. Throughout my application, I felt clueless when it came to school choices and personal statements in my application. My only information sources were my older Chinese friends already enrolled in U.S. colleges and the internet, and I knew only a handful of things about Amherst. Taking aside the English requirements and standardized testing results, the information from “insiders” can indeed prove helpful, sometimes pivotal, in applications to schools like Amherst. As many recent Amherst College graduates move to different Chinese cities to work for study abroad consulting agencies, I desperately want to, but no longer can, assert that qualified Chinese applicants who choose not to/cannot afford to use consultants would be on equal footings with their wealthier peers in their applications, including applications to Amherst. However, I must also acknowledge that Amherst’s complicity in the chaotic Chinese study abroad market is minute when compared to even the tip of the gigantic iceberg called “Chinese educational inequality,” a subject we shall save for another day.

Having attended a prestigious public high school with lots of resources, I have occupied immense education privilege. Intriguingly, five of the about 30 Chinese international students now at Amherst attended my high school. Amidst the financial crisis in 2009, the Director of Financial Aid Joe Paul Case warned, in response to proposed cut of aid for international students, that even though the quality of international students would maintain, “You’d have a bunching of [international] students… by high school.” For example, “You’d be virtually getting all of your Korean [international] students out of about three of four high schools.” Case continued to argue that “if what we’re trying to do is have students from a lot of different backgrounds, does it make a lot of sense to have a lot of students from the same high schools in Korea?” The lack of data and information on Amherst’s rarely examined international admission policy is frustrating — how can I know that our current international student body does not exhibit a bunching by high school, when I myself serve as a counterexample?

Educational privilege is by no means limited to any specific region. While regional education inequality certainly contributes to the “bunching” of qualified international applicants, the College should engage in critical evaluations of its international admission. Is “diversity” what we seek for international admissions? How “diverse” actually is our international student and alumni body, if we go beyond regional representation and consider socioeconomic status and secondary background? Considering the privacy of our students and alumni, I believe we should at least call for transparency and accessibility of information on international admission efforts. How are we recruiting internationally in different regions? How are we ensuring the fairness of our recruiting and admission processes overseas? Is the multi-million dollar recruiting project in Africa and South America just a rumor or does it actually exist?

I applied to Amherst because it is among the only six U.S. undergraduate institutions (and the only liberal arts college) that are need-blind to international applicants, which means “Amherst will admit international students without regard to their level of financial need or request for financial aid.” However, since the international need-blind policy was first announced in 2008, we have undergone a financial crisis, which first threatens the aid for international students. Sixty-two faculty members have written a letter to the Trustees in summer 2009 to suggest a reduction in need-blind aid for international students, which had also generated strong reactions from the student body. After this long-fought battle of repeated debates on whether or not to cancel the need-blind policy for international students, 42 of the 48 international students in the Class of 2016 applied for financial aid, which is reassuring even if the possibility of losing such policy still looms. While I would like to think that Amherst is at least on the right track towards attracting a diverse group of international applicants, if not a diverse group of international matriculated students from their respective regions, I urge all students and faculty to learn more about our recent institutional history and contemplate the possible actions we could take if faced with another crisis — we should not be so forgetful, and we should strive to keep discussions going.

It disappoints me that the recent Internationalization of Liberal Arts Education Committee under the Strategic Planning team seems to have omitted any inquiries into the international recruiting and admission. While facilitating our American students’ study abroad and other international experiences is certainly crucial, our international student body plays an integral part in the internationalization of Amherst’s liberal arts mission. Or as former College President Tony Marx puts it in his discussion of the need-blind policy for international admission, “It is in everyone’s best interest that we are doing what we can to educate the best mix of future leaders.” Though I have yet to formulate a full understanding of the relationship between international admission, international student career choices and the internationalization of liberal arts education, I sincerely hope that the College is no longer interested (or at least not merely interested) in only admitting and educating the potential multi-national corporate leaders or the future Kenyattas and Papandreous of the world. I strongly suggest that the College consider how to attract and admit a truly diverse international students and then how to best facilitate them in other career choices, such as becoming humanists, scientists, artists, pioneers in global development and social reformers for justice. Otherwise, our need-blind policy will be in a constant threat of becoming a self-comforting tokenistic lie in the face of that 200,000 RMB.