It's About to Get Easier (and More Expensive) to Make the Ivy League - OZY | A Modern Media Company

It's About to Get Easier (and More Expensive) to Make the Ivy League

It's About to Get Easier (and More Expensive) to Make the Ivy League

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

The campus of Harvard Business School and Harvard University.
SourceBrooks Kraft/Getty


Because American higher education is preparing for a seismic shift.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

Like many academically inclined teenagers, high school junior Preeti Jaspal has dreams of getting into Harvard. Her brother went there, as did her uncle. For the moment, she’s at home in Edison, New Jersey — her school is closed because of the coronavirus outbreak — brooding about her chances: Only 5 percent of applicants are accepted by the Ivy League school each year. “That’s a big part of what we talk about,” she says, referring to anxious phone conversations with friends.

But once the pandemic fades, a twist of fate might improve her chances — and those of millions of other American students — of getting into a top college. That said, it’ll come at a price.

Away from the day-to-day fight against the virus, America’s higher education system is preparing for a seismic shift that experts say could last for years. More than 1 million international students are among those who have had to vacate campuses and, in most cases, head back to their home nations. Experts predict that many of them won’t return to a country that for decades has been the world’s biggest magnet for global students but is now the epicenter of the virus outbreak — with more than 500,000 cases and 20,000 deaths as of Saturday. Several universities — from Harvard to Duke — are already refunding dorm fees.

The death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. and how it compares with America’s losses in modern wars and other crises.

And there’s growing evidence of the challenges ahead for universities in recruiting fresh international students. In a study of 234 American universities in March by the Institute of International Education, three out of four schools said the virus had forced them to cancel outreach and recruitment events for prospective Chinese students — the single largest group of global students in the U.S.

That’ll mean more slots at top universities for American students like Jaspal. Harvard, for instance, has more than 6,500 international students out of a total of 31,000. But apart from losing the exposure that comes from interacting with young minds from around the world, American students might also have to pay more, experts caution. A major source of revenue, international students brought in more than $45 billion to U.S. schools in 2018. Without that, universities will likely need to cut back on scholarships for those they do recruit — including domestic students. And the impact of the virus on universities will last well beyond the pandemic itself, say analysts.

The impact of fall 2020 will be felt for at least four years and may shift enrollment patterns for an extended period of time.

Scott Friedman, Deloitte Consulting

“This will not be a one-time challenge,” says Scott Friedman, a principal at Deloitte Consulting who specializes in the higher education industry. “The impact of fall 2020 will be felt for at least four years and may shift enrollment patterns for an extended period of time.”

That’s a view shared by Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, and not just for students coming to the U.S. — foreigners bound for universities in other countries may also revisit their options.

To be sure, not all universities will be impacted equally. Institutions in the “second or third tier” will struggle the most financially, says Marginson. “Ultimately, we may see consolidation among U.S. institutions,” adds Friedman. And while both agree that university coffers across the board will suffer, Marginson points out that “some scholarship money is fixed by regulation and the conditions governing bequests.”

But even top schools are worried. After the U.S. State Department suspended most visas last month, forcing almost all international students to pack up and leave, Harvard Business School (HBS) Admissions Director Chad Losee posted a blog “reaffirming our commitment to international students.” The HBS class of 2021 has 37 percent international students for the two-year program, and Losee said the school would help students get visas again once the current crisis fades. But he conceded a deeper concern: that many admitted students might not show up. HBS typically keeps a very short waitlist, but they would invite many more students to stay on the waitlist for fall 2020, he said.

College Students Told To Leave Campuses To Counter Spread Of Coronavirus

Students move out of dorm rooms on Harvard Yard before the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

Source Maddie Meyer/Getty

While classes at most universities have moved online, they’re harder for international students to attend across time zones, when it could be the middle of the night for them. And for many students who paid a premium for face-to-face classes at top Ivy League universities, having to settle for online classes that tend to be significantly cheaper is frustrating. “I understand why the university is doing this. It makes sense and I support it,” says Yang Wei, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore who is now back in his native Shanghai. “But this isn’t what my parents took a loan for.”

Unlike Yang, American students won’t need to worry about getting back into the country once visa restrictions are relaxed. That’s why U.S. universities are increasingly focusing on them. Some, like La Salle University, have pushed back their deadlines for students to deposit fees for the fall semester. Others, like Brandeis University and the University of Southern California, are encouraging admitted and prospective students to join their virtual campus tours, since they can’t visit in person. Another reason for optimism? Enrollment usually goes up during economic downturns of the kind we’re likely to witness, says Friedman.

How these efforts and expectations play out might well depend on another factor, say experts: whether American students will favor universities closer to home, at least in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. “I would expect student mobility even domestically to decrease, with students choosing to stay closer to home,” says Friedman. That, he adds, could particularly hurt public universities that depend on out-of-state students who typically pay more.

It’s a concern playing out in Jaspal’s household in New Jersey. Over dinner recently, her father wondered if she should instead consider New York University, she says. Jaspal says she’s still got Harvard on her mind and that her parents will support her — despite their misgivings at the moment. “And Cambridge is hardly far,” she says.

In fact, her Harvard dream is closer than ever. America’s universities are counting on students like her.

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