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A Path Into Elite U.S. Universities for a Few Arab Students

CAIRO—For a few highly qualified students from the Arab world who seek an education at highly elite institutions in the United States but who feel like they could never afford them, there is a way in. A handful of prestigious American institutions admit students regardless of financial need in a practice known as “need blind” admissions. Those who are admitted are supported with generous financial aid.

Princeton, Harvard, Amherst, Dartmouth, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology practice “need-blind” policies that include international applicants and that mean applicants are supposed to be considered equally no matter how rich or poor they are. The institutions say that they meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for those who are accepted. (Many other American institutions are ‘need-blind’ for U.S. citizens but not for overseas applicants.)

At Princeton University, for example, financial aid can even include a round-trip airline ticket each academic year to and from a student’s home country, as well as a lump-sum winter-break allowance for food or local travel, said Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton University. Princeton also helps international students in need of funds to find on-campus jobs in order for them to earn spending money.

“If we admit the students, we do everything we can to get them here and then to take care of them for their four years,” Rapelye said. Rapelye has never heard of a case in which an admitted student from North Africa or the Middle East couldn’t attend Princeton due to financial restrictions. If an admitted student feels he or she needs more aid than is initially granted, “we urge them to contact our financial aid office and to work with our financial aid office and determine what barriers they have, and perhaps we can help them more,” Rapelye said. “There are many cases where we adjust the financial aid package when we have more information.”

At MIT, like other such institutions offering the international version of need-blind admissions, the university encourages students worldwide to apply regardless of financial standing.

“Often times students are intimidated because they think they’ll be the only student from a modest background coming to school here, but a pretty significant part of our population comes from modest backgrounds,” said Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT. “We are looking for students who are super talented, regardless of their circumstances.”

Schmill said 89 percent of students attending the institute receive financial aid. “We have had students who are very, very poor—meaning no assets except maybe a farm animal,” he said. “We have children of subsistence farmers here with no assets, with income, and they are able to do it.”

Dartmouth College, located in Hanover, New Hampshire, also guarantees 100 percent of demonstrated financial aid to students for all four years of undergraduate study, and awards scholarships and financial aid based on a student’s ability to afford the costs of a Dartmouth education, senior media relations officer, Amy Olson, said in an e-mail. “As a member of the Ivy League, Dartmouth does not award academic, athletic or merit scholarships,” she said.

But details about financial aid for admitted students were unclear. “As for specifics about affordability regarding transportations and other associated costs, it is difficult to provide a comment here given that each student comes from a unique background,” Olson said.

When considering how much financial aid to award admitted students, Amherst College in Massachusetts takes into account an array of factors including student’s cost of living in their countries of residence, if they live in a rural or urban environment, the number of children in a student’s family and income and assets of parents, said Katie Fretwell, dean of admission at Amherst. Unique budgets are put together for each student based on factors such as need for health insurance and distance from campus, which could affect the amount of transportation support Amherst provides.

“We’re pretty sensitive to all the circumstances that impact a student’s ability to pay when we do an assessment,” Fretwell said.

About 73 percent of the international students who are accepted to Amherst are offered financial aid, Fretwell said, “so, you can interpret that to mean that the best applicants in our international pool are needy. And we’re fortunate that we have an aid policy that allows us to admit the most talented students in that group.”

When it comes to applicant interviews, which some universities and colleges require, institutions such as Harvard seek to make the process accessible for applicants who can’t easily travel. The university relies on alumni volunteers across the world to conduct admissions interviews in applicants’ local areas where possible, said Jeff Neal, director of communications for the university. “If that is not possible, interviews can be conducted remotely via Skype or by phone,” he said in an email. “In instances where an interview cannot be arranged, it will not negatively impact the admissions decision.”

Other universities, such as Amherst, have eliminated the interview portion of admission altogether.

When applicant interviews were required decades ago, those who visited Amherst for interviews tended to be more affluent students, disadvantaging already-disadvantaged students who couldn’t get to campus due to financial reasons or otherwise, Fretwell said. “So, we’ve eliminated the personal interview as part of the process altogether, which means we’re putting more weight on recommendations and levels of achievement, and self-expression,” she said.

“We ask a lot of our applicants in that way but don’t make the interview part of it,” she added.

The catch, of course, for those Arab applicants interested in studying in the United States, is that American elite universities are very difficult to get into, with many of those with need-blind policies for international students accepting fewer than 10 percent of applicants. But admissions officers at internationally need-blind institutions encourage well-qualified Arab applicants not to be daunted by the price tags of their institutions and at least take the step of applying.


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