When Edmund K. Sherrill ’47 retuned to Yale after fighting in World War II, he found that some of the young men whose backyards had served as battlefields followed him across the Atlantic. With the rest of the world recovering from war, European students poured into the United States in search of higher education, many of them coming to Yale. In 1948, Sherril helped to found one of the nation’s first summer preparatory programs for incoming international students, shaping the first wave of what would be a massive shift in the foreign student population in America.
“When I was a boy, it was ‘America first! The sea is our defense!’ That all changed so radically after World War II ended,” Sherril said. “Some of us had been involved in the actual fighting, and we were greatly drawn to building bridges with other nations.”
Historically, the quality of Yale College’s foreign student population was largely ruled by contemporary world conditions, with the University taking a passive role in international student recruitment. But thanks to accelerated recruiting efforts over the past decade, international undergraduates have more than doubled their share of the student body.
Director of International Students and Scholars Ann Kuhlman said total undergraduate international enrollment currently stands at 8.7 percent, second only to the University of Pennsylvania in the “Ivy-plus schools” (including Stanford, University of Chicago, and MIT). From 1994 to 2004, the share of international undergraduates enrolled at Yale nearly doubled.
Now, for the first time in decades, the College’s recruiting efforts are challenged by a decline in foreign applications to American schools. As global changes discourage students from coming to the United States, the College must fight to maintain its reputation as an international institution.
Foreign share of the undergraduate student population was only 3 percent in the late 1980s, about the same level as at the close of the 19th century. While a figure of 3 percent made Yale a leader among the Ivies in the 1800s, in the 20th century Yale had the smallest percentage of international students of any comparable university, former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead told the News in 1996.
To rectify the situation, Yale University President Richard Levin said, the administration adopted a guideline to double the number of non-Canadian foreign students. The admissions office expanded its outreach program, visiting Asia and Latin America in addition to Europe. Levin said non-Canadian enrollment has actually more than tripled from 2 to 7 percent as a result.
“Twelve years ago we were not on the radar screen in lots of parts of the world,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw said. “We started then and have been working harder and harder to ensure that we are on the radar screen everywhere. We have been extraordinarily successful.”
Yale has followed nationwide trends in terms of the geographical distribution of its international students. The economic development of China and India has caused Asia to replace Western Europe as the greatest contributor of students to the College. While East and Southeast Asia’s share of the foreign population at Yale reached 24 percent in 2004, Western Europe’s share of the foreign population at Yale has decreased from 17 percent to 11 percent since 1999. Kuhlman said Europe has developed a strong, relatively inexpensive higher education system that draws Europeans from U.S. schools.
Diana Schawlowski ’08, who came to Yale from Germany, said that Europeans frequently opt for universities closer to home.
“You hear of Yale, and it has a good reputation, but in Germany’s it’s not too common to go study in the U.S.,” Schawlowski said. “It has the reputation of being very expensive, so people prefer to stay in Germany because the schools there aren’t bad either.”
Enrollment of Middle Eastern students has likewise decreased, dropping from 10 to 6 percent due to visa restrictions and aggressive foreign policy toward Islamic nations, Kuhlman said. Meanwhile, Kuhlman said representation from Africa increased from 4 to 8 percent because of accelerated recruiting efforts and an expansion of financial aid for international students.
Women have also made progress in their corner of international admissions. In 1995, male international students at the College outnumbered females by a ratio of more than two to one. The ratio has gradually decreased over the past decade, and this year there were only slightly more men than women. Kuhlman said the evening out could be attributed to improved female access to exemplary secondary education and families’ greater comfort in sending women abroad.
For its first century of existence, however, Yale graduated no international students. Records indicate that the first foreign student arrived between 1805 and 1810. Foreign share of the undergraduate student body climbed to over 2 percent over the course of the 19th century. Statistics reflecting undergraduate foreign enrollment are unavailable for most of the 20th century, but University-wide records indicate that the percentage increased only slightly until World War II, after which the share of international students quickly doubled.
Sherril said most of the international students at Yale were initially from European Allied nations, but over time students from the former Axis powers began to arrive as well. Yuji Ito ’57 GRD ’62 was one of the first to come to the United States from Japan on a scholarship designed for international students. At the time, he said, the British made up a significant portion of the foreign student body, and there were few Asians.
“I was isolated in the sense that there weren’t any people with my background, but I was fine,” he said. “There might have been people whose fathers might have been killed in the war, but there was no open hostile attitude toward me.”
After the initial boom following World War II, undergraduate international enrollment stagnated. Canadian Ray Kinoshita ’76 said other than his countrymen, foreign students in the 1970s were rare enough to be more of an oddity than an influence.
“I don’t remember my attitudes and consciousness being raised through interaction with international Yale College students,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Yale has come a long way in expanding its foreign population since the 1970s and even the 1980s, but its work is not yet done. Though there is no explicit target, Levin said, the administration hopes to continue to establish Yale as an international institution.
“I think our mission has to be more global in character to really have the kind of role in the 21st century that Yale has had historically,” he said.
But Yale’s international aspirations are challenged by national trends in higher education. Open Doors, a watchdog for foreign students in the United States, reported that undergraduate foreign enrollments decreased almost 5 percent nationwide, the first absolute decline in decades. Open Doors largely blamed the war on terrorism for the decline in international student applications. The war’s effects include tighter immigration restrictions and a more negative perception of America’s attitude toward the international community.
Whether the decline represents a long-term trend remains unclear; Kuhlman said visa processing has improved in the past year, but the international community still perceives U.S. immigration policy as a roadblock.
So far, Yale has bucked the national decline, and expects modest improvement in undergraduate international applications in the next few years. Shaw said he expects the new Student Ambassador Program, in which Yale students studying abroad make contacts in foreign countries, to boost international enrollment. And as one of only 5 percent of U.S. schools that offer financial aid to foreign students, Yale will continue to attract greater numbers of the world’s best and brightest, Shaw said.
Alberto Boquin ’06 said that in his native Honduras, receiving an American education is seen as a mark of success. Boquin had heard that Yale’s financial aid policy was the best in the United States and so decided to apply.
“It seems like at Yale particular people are very broad-minded and appreciate an international perspective,” Boquin said.
Robin Tang ’08, a Chinese student who came to Yale on an international financial aid package, expects that improvements in visa and aid policies will cause Chinese applications to Yale to rise in coming years.
“Internationally speaking, Yale isn’t as popular as other Ivy League schools, especially Harvard, and Yale has done a lot about that,” he said. “I think the future is very promising for international students at Yale.”