This post was written by Steven Ditto, an International Education master’s candidate at George Washington University.
“Why is it that internationals are always at a disadvantage?”
This was the question posed by a prospective student from India, reflecting on the application process to American universities. Written in the MIT “admissions blog
,” the student’s full comment will offer more perspective:
“In my case, the testing cost alone is more than $230, which is a huge cost…as I’m in India, there’s an additional…‘security surcharge to test in India and Pakistan’ of $22. And I’m not exactly rich. Add to that, some universities don’t even offer application fee waivers for international applicants. So why is it that internationals are always at a disadvantage?? Fortunately MIT offers application fee waivers for international students.”
International student testimonies, like the above, make it clear that costs incurred during the application process are sometimes not routine. Application fees, standardized testing, and the translation and mailing of transcripts can stretch students beyond financial comfort.
Like MIT, the University of Chicago
also allows international students to apply for an application fee waiver, “If your family makes less than or around $75,000 a year” – well beyond average annual household income in the developing world. However, they are a minority, and even the notion that international students can face financial disadvantage shares no consensus among admissions professionals. In contrast to MIT’s practice, for instance, the neighboring University of Massachusetts
approaches international students much differently:
“Since international students must verify that they have adequate finances to pay for their education, requesting a fee waiver indicates that they do not have adequate finances and therefore would not be able to enroll. For this reason, we do not waive application fees for international students.”
As these conflicting policies make clear, not only does no standardized system exist to exempt international students from application fees – similar to the “application fee waiver” developed by NACAC
and College Board
for disadvantaged American students – but vastly different perceptions of America’s international student community exist as well.
Unprecedented Challenges: Students from Iran
As the quote from the Indian student demonstrates, a desire to study in the United States is not indicative of financial solvency, and by extension the ability to pay application fees or full tuition at American universities.
Despite these remarkable numbers, however, the mobility challenges faced by Iranian students on the path to an American education are unparalleled. A lack of diplomatic relations with Iran means that after university admissions, students must travel outside the country for visa interviews at regional US embassies. Moreover, although ETS has taken great strides to continue TOEFL and GRE testing in Iran, other standardized tests, such as the SAT and GMAT, are not offered, necessitating similar costly trips.
However, most pertinent to admissions professionals are the economic sanctions, beginning in the mid-1990s, that have isolated Iran’s banking and financial sectors, effectively making it impossible for Iranians to conduct Internet transactions. This means that prospective students from Iran cannot physically and legally pay application fees on university websites. In response, they are forced to illegally obtain foreign, pre-paid debit cards on the “black market” and at marked-up prices (more about this, along with statistics on the US international student population, are available in my thesis
). Moreover, with the devaluation of local currency against the US dollar, costs incurred during the admissions process can amount to more than six months of average income. From the very start of their educational journey to America, this talented student group experiences significant financial and logistical hardship, and legal burdens. One student, now pursuing a PhD in America, summed up the situation:
“I had two issues with application fees. First, I was not able to pay on my own since I did not have credit card in Iran and it was really hard to pay by credit card from Iran…Second issue is that the application fee is high for students which limits the number of universities that they can apply. At least this is what happened to myself.”
What You Can Do
Contributing to the mobility of the world’s best and brightest serves many interests: The interests of America’s economy; the interests of education, innovation, and knowledge; and also the interests of students, in this globalized and interconnected world, to study with ease wherever their educational aspirations take them.
While it is recognized that application fees are important sources of revenue, and serve to distinguish serious applicants, the creation of an “international application fee waiver
” could significantly ease student mobility and be a positive step to recognize the central role of university education in today’s global reality. In comparison, Canadian universities have already banded together to offer application fee waivers
to prospective students from “the world’s 50 least developed countries.” Although this system has shortcomings (as that list does not include India, or Iran), it is a step in the right direction.
Not all is doom and gloom for profit margins either. As the number of foreign undergraduates paying full tuition indicates (as explored in my thesis), little is likely to change through the introduction of such a waiver, and, like for American students, checks would have to be put in place to ensure that only those in true financial need utilize it. However, international students are not a monolith, and whether due to individual circumstances, like the student from India, or geopolitical realities, like those from Iran, many do face hardships from seemingly “small” expenditures like application fees. Implementing an application fee waiver for international students could be a major step towards student equality and mobility and a fitting policy to complement the globalized world students and universities inhabit today.
Empathy, compassion, and extending a helping hand to international students, whether through official policies, or in day-to-day interactions, not only contributes to the betterment of the world, but are also often much needed and important gestures that are not easily forgotten.
is an “international education” master’s candidate in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University. His interests include student mobility, educational exchange, and women’s educational attainment in the Middle East. He is also in need of a job – anywhere within the lower 48 states – after graduation.