Should America’s Universities Stop Taking So Many International Students?

Critics say the country’s higher-education institutions should focus on ensuring more Americans get four-year degrees, but college presidents highlight the benefits of global diversity on campus.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The University of California at Berkeley fields more than 85,000 freshman applications every year. About 15,500 of those applicants are accepted, including 4,500 or so students who aren’t from California; roughly 9 percent of those offered admission aren’t from the United States.

Global diversity has inherent value in a college setting, but at Berkeley—a public institution that receives substantial support from taxpayer dollars—some argue it can come into conflict with its founding values as a “land-grant” university established in the mid-1800s largely to serve the children of farmers and factory workers. And as panelists acknowledged in a discussion Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, some even find international-student recruitment at private universities problematic at a time when a four-year degree remains out of reach for so many Americans.

But the panelists—all of them current or former university presidents—roundly disagree with the contention that colleges and universities in the U.S. should be restricted to those who live in the country.

UC Berkeley is charged with giving California students a premier education, and that means “having a diverse student body that includes having students outside the state of California and other countries,” said Carol Christ, the school’s chancellor. “It gives them global fluency, the ability to move across borders,” said Christ, who previously served as the president of Smith College. Not having students from other countries “is compromising their ultimate success.”

And Yale President Peter Salovey stressed that any notions that universities reap the benefits of public funding while failing to reinvest it in society are a misconception. Universities, in fact, stimulate the economy, largely through the research they conduct and the jobs they provide. It’s no coincidence, he pointed out, that the technology industry boomed in Stanford’s backyard.

Meanwhile, Daniel Porterfield, the former president of Franklin & Marshall College, argued that universities have somewhat of a duty to serve students abroad as much as they do on their own home turf, noting that “globalization gives us a feeling of connectedness, but it also gives us a feeling of fragmentation.” Universities can, argued Porterfield, who currently oversees the Aspen Institute, play a role in bridging those gaps, whether real or felt. Jack DeGoia, the current president of Georgetown, for example, believed that “Georgetown as a Catholic institution could and should play a role in spreading knowledge around the world.”

Christ added that globalization also gives universities “soft power” abroad. “America’s higher-education system is the best in the world,” she said. Ensuring the country’s universities continue to serve students from other countries is “a wonderful way of maintaining America’s power … in a constructive way.”

But Salovey appreciates concerns that universities writ large aren’t doing enough to serve their communities—concerns that have perhaps become more urgent as contempt of higher education has surged.

“We want to create the most dynamic, interesting, educationally fascinating environment that we can,” he said—and that means figuring out a way for more people to come to campus.