By Jason M. Kirschner, Head of Admissions USA, EF Academy International Boarding Schools

Virtually every IECA member and every independent secondary school leader in the United States is familiar with the controversy surrounding admissions standards and student body diversity with regard to international students, particularly those from China. When independent schools are struggling to meet their bottom line and encounter waves of eager full-pay applicants from China and other parts of the world, there is a temptation to accept a limited vetting process and admit those students without fully understanding their goals and needs. It is justified by suggesting that full-pay Chinese students help keep good schools open so that those schools can educate their core of US students, often at a lower cost. Or it is justified by suggesting that Chinese students will benefit from any American education as a superior option to what they have in their home country. Some schools take the opposite line to an extreme, refusing to admit qualified, mission-appropriate Asian students (and even Asian-American students) because of the perception that they might negatively affect diversity and significantly alter school culture or potentially cause a level of discomfort among their heretofore reliable base of traditional—mostly White and Christian—boarding school families.

Best Fit

From an ethical standpoint, an old proverb comes to mind: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is not difficult to empathize with the position that independent schools find themselves in, regardless of what you believe about the value and role of private education in the United States. As long as independent school leaders take stock to ensure that consulting and admissions practices are executed in such a way that we prioritize best fit for individual students irrespective of their national or ethnic background, we can all feel good about the work we’re doing and the lives we’re improving. It is our responsibility to educate our American parents as to why we see so many Asian applicants and how diverse they are as individual contributors to school life. And we owe it to our Asian and other international applicants to really learn who they are and set appropriate expectations for them.

It starts by putting yourselves in your international applicants’ shoes. Imagine you are 15 years old, born and raised in Shanghai, or Hanoi, or Lagos, or Sao Paolo. What do you want from life? What are your goals? Why is it your dream to go high school and university in the United States, and how do you think is it going to be different from the education you’ve experienced growing up? What are you excited to do and what are you really nervous about? How are you unique compared with all of those other students in your country who want to go to school abroad? I’m sure you can also imagine that each applicant would have different answers to those questions.

With the choices and opportunities available to high school students today, the biggest challenge to find what’s right for them as an individual. Because that’s what international students are—individual sentient young people who need our help and guidance to help them make appropriate decisions. We Americans might not always feel that deeply enough. Asking international applicants to take an admissions test, such as the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) or the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT), can be useful to learn more about a student’s strengths; weaknesses; learning style; and if the student is a non-native English speaker, language proficiency. But the student’s goals and admissions test results should be considered together with the coursework and levels they’ve accomplished in school overseas to more capably guide the student.

English Proficiency

In international admissions, it is particularly important to ensure that a prospective student’s English level meets the requirements of the academic programs. Accepting an international student whose English level is not high enough is unethical by any standard. A student whose English level is too low will not only struggle and most likely fail to succeed in school, but will also find it incredibly difficult to acclimate to or feel comfortable in their English-speaking environment. That alone would be enough to ruin their study abroad experience and set their education back.

In a truly ethical and honest admissions process, a student’s English proficiency is taken very seriously and in cases where they do not meet the language requirements, independent education consultants and schools must work with the student and his parents to find a suitable alternative, which could be a summer of English lessons, or a whole year of English and preparatory classes. The solution should never be to throw the child into an environment they are not prepared for and hope that they do not drown, even when their parents mistakenly insist upon it. That happens, and it happens a lot.

Tuition Fees

Progressing through an ethical admissions process, we arrive at the topic of tuition fees. Many private schools have exorbitant tuition prices for students who come from out of the country, which takes advantage of families who might not understand that their child is making it possible for domestic students to get a private school education at a lower cost. Other schools have more transparent and equitable practices. For example, EF Academy has a global tuition rate regardless of national origin, and we are transparent about what tuition covers and what additional fees a family will need to pay—but what is important is that those mandatory fees are the same for everyone who attends our school.

The Bottom Line

We can embrace our best natures, genuinely help young people get the best possible education available, and be financially responsible as we run institutions we can be proud of. Independent school admissions offices have to consider financial goals, but it’s imperative to keep every student’s well-being in mind at all times and to never think of young people with personalities and dreams as numbers and dollar signs. At the same time, we must not get caught up in a xenophobic hysteria that bars international students from participating in our schools as global citizens. Remaining fair and honest and following an ethical admissions process is the best way to help a student maximize his or her potential and thrive in a first-rate academic setting. If a school is the right fit for an individual student, from China or another country, just wait and see how amazing he or she can be and the positive effect on the entire school community. It is a privilege to work in a field where we guide today’s youth to success and achievement in an interconnected world, and we all have the ability to take advantage of that without taking advantage of international students.

Jason M. Kirschner can be reached at [email protected].