Incoming freshman Shruti Pal’s reasons for choosing Swarthmore College are similar to those of many Swatties.
“I heard about Swarthmore through some school friends who had applied in the years before me, and so I visited Swarthmore last summer along with several other colleges I had shortlisted,” Pal said. “Swarthmore just had it all. Perfect location, beautiful campus, reputable academics, small class sizes, and interesting traditions.”
Thousands of students visit and apply to Swarthmore every year because of these same defining features. Pal, however, had to travel over 9,000 miles from Singapore to Swarthmore.
Journeys such as Pal’s are not uncommon — indeed, less uncommon than ever. Pal enters Swarthmore as part of the largest international student population in the college’s history. The class of 2018 has 51 international students coming from 25 different countries, along with 35 dual citizens and permanent residents.
“Typically, about 8 percent of the class are non-U.S. citizens, not including dual citizens and permanent residents,” Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90 said. “This year, we’re at 13 percent. That was a big jump, unexpectedly.”
While this year’s spike in international student representation seems to be acute, foreign students have been populating American colleges and universities at a steadily increasing rate for several decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics — the statistics service for the Department of Education — the total number of international students has risen 1.6 percent over the past 21 years. “The U.S. for education is still considered the gold standard, so we are seeing more people apply,” Bock said.
Bock attributes several factors to the increased international students population at Swarthmore. A simple explanation is the overall rise in class size, from 389 in 2013 to 407 in 2014. Growing class size and enhancing campus diversity are central tenets of the college’s long-term Strategic Plan of 2011.
One significant explanation was not entirely within the college’s control. Between the 2013 and 2014 application cycles, Swarthmore admitted approximately the same number of non-U.S. citizens, but nearly 30 percent more of the admittees chose to attend Swarthmore.
“Part of that is our outreach,” Bock noted. “We’ve started to recruit more internationally and have spent more time abroad.” He included university rankings as a potential selling point on the global stage.
“To our advantage, Swarthmore does pretty well in a lot of the rankings, so we think we’ve seen some increased interest there,” he said.
Swarthmore certainly lacks the overseas branding advantage that Ivy League schools attract. “Most Italians haven’t even heard of Swarthmore,” Jasmine Anouna ’18 said. “It’s not because they are not interested in going to one of America’s best liberal arts colleges, but because when an Italian student does come to the U.S., they’re simply focused on what other Italians consider the “name-drop schools” like Harvard or Yale.”
But incoming foreign students agreed that Internet research and ranking lists were particularly useful in choosing to attend the school.
“I believe the growth in the number of international students is thanks to the wide range of resources on the Internet that allow any student in the world to conduct thorough research on American colleges,” Anouna said.
Another Singaporean, Damien Ding ’18, agreed that he first discovered Swarthmore through such resources. Rares Mosneanu ’18 of Romania admitted that he “discovered Swarthmore by accident: searching for the Best Liberal Arts Colleges in America list.”
Bock also sees certain cultural trends playing out across the world that make America an attractive place to receive a degree. He believes that in overcrowded nations, such as China, the competition for entry to the elite universities is so stiff that many well-qualified students are forced to seek alternatives. The dean has also found that, from country to country, there is “a growing appreciation for the resident liberal arts education.”
At many colleges and universities in the U.S., foreign students are barred from receiving institutional aid, a problem further compounded by their inability to receive federal financial aid. Swarthmore’s policy of offering financial aid to international students is relatively unique; in fact, the average grant for non-U.S. citizens is several thousand dollars higher than the average grant for domestic students, mainly because U.S. citizens are supplemented with federal aid.
Swarthmore’s need-blind policy for students — admitting without regard for ability to pay — only extends to American citizens, so it is possible that the school’s budget for international financial aid would be unable to meet the needs of all foreign admits. According to Bock, this has never been an issue: “Our policy allows us to spend what we need to spend,” he stated.
Bock said there were benefits to being able to admit and, more importantly, pay for students of all backgrounds and origins. “Our population is diverse, socioeconomically and internationally, as opposed to some other schools where everyone is full-pay,” Bock said. “It adds to the diversity, the breadth of campus.”
For international students such as Mosneanu, Swarthmore’s outreach and aid policy as well as its enhanced push for diversity, means that they have a greater opportunity to enjoy all of the positive assets that the college brings to the table. “I think that this decision to increase our presence will only improve both Swarthmore’s prestige worldwide and its reputation as an environment where diversity is really important,” Mosneanu said. “Although I [previously] did not know anything about [the college], I really feel that I found the right place to spend the best four years of my life.”