Diversity, budget realities drive Berkeley’s international enrollment strategy

Mirroring the multicultural DNA that marks the Bay Area as a hotbed of innovation and industry, UC Berkeley’s student body includes an international cohort administrators say enriches the campus far beyond the full-tuition revenues generated by nonresident enrollments.

Take 20-year-old Haerang Lee, an economics and business major, who was born in Seoul, South Korea. A junior carrying 18 units this semester, Lee is thankful for the opportunity to study at Berkeley.

Haerang Lee

Junior Haerang Lee came to Berkeley from Seoul, South Korea. Photo Roibín Ó hÉochaidh

“In Korea, it’s really hard for people with different ideas to do well, and really hard for women,” she says. “Here, it’s not like that. My choices aren’t constrained.”

Lee’s family is digging deep to support her. Her father and her mother, who also take care of her sister and grandmother, are using almost all their savings, plus some loans, to cover the costs of her education at Berkeley, she says.

The price is a heavy burden sometimes lost on American classmates.

“People don’t say it out loud, but I can feel they think I’m rich,” Lee says. “What they don’t know is that I’m going over my family’s limits. Here, I spend almost as much as my dad’s yearly income as an engineer.”

During her two years at Berkeley, Lee, who has also lived in New Zealand and India, has been working with the Berkeley International Office, the ASUC and the International Students Association at Berkeley to develop resources and support for overseas students.

“Like many Berkeley students, I want to help save the world,” Lee says. “For that you need courage, and learning to speak up when things are not right, that’s a lesson I’ll take with me wherever I go.”

Shifting sands

While diversity has long been a central and valued strand of the campus fabric, Californians continue to make up the bulk of the 26,000-strong undergraduate population. Indeed, the number of California residents enrolled as undergraduates at Berkeley (21,500 students) is higher than the 20,500 Californians enrolled in 2004, when Chancellor Robert Birgeneau took over the top job at Berkeley.

“Despite the fact that the state has stopped paying for these students…we have not decreased the number of Californians,” Birgeneau said during his annual back-to-school briefing. “International and out-of-state students have been added on.”

For the 2011-12 academic year, California residents again account for the vast majority of freshman and transfer enrollments (6,100 students). The incoming class of 8,500 undergraduates is bolstered by some 1,100 international students from more than 50 countries around the globe, and also includes 1,100 U.S. undergraduates from beyond California.

“Changing our mix to include more out-of-state and international students enriches the intellectual and cultural diversity of student life,” said Birgeneau, himself a Canada native who studied in the United States as an international student.

However, with state disinvestment leaving roughly half of Berkeley’s California students unsubsidized, Birgeneau’s oft-stated desire to increase the number of international and out-of-state students throughout the UC system has taken on an important financial dimension.

A tectonic shift in funding for the University of California over recent years means that for the first time in the UC system’s history, the funding generated from student tuition has surpassed state financial support.

California students attending Berkeley for the 2011-12 academic year will pay about $11,000 in undergraduate tuition, plus more than $3,000 to cover health insurance and other fees. For nonresidents, tuition, fees and health insurance total more than $37,000.

Some of the additional revenue from nonresident student tuition is being used to expand capacity in high-demand gateway courses required for many majors, including reading-and-composition classes and introductory math and science, while the campus has added 30 new foreign-language classes this semester.

Birgeneau is aiming for an 80/20-enrollment balance by 2014-15, designed to fulfill UC’s commitment to California residents while generating some of the additional revenue critical to maintaining the institution’s public status — as well as its academic excellence — for future generations.

“Being mindful of our academic standards, and of not lowering the admissions bar, it’s safe to say that the nonresident-applicant pool is usually stronger as measured by all academic indicators,” says Walter Robinson, Berkeley’s departing assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate admissions and director of undergraduate enrollment.

Global perspective

Across the United States, public universities have flung open their doors in recent years to a flood of foreign students as they struggle to bridge ever-deeper cuts in state funding.

The number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities reached a record high of 691,000 during the 2009-10 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education.

“Going back to the 1960s, Berkeley had the highest number of foreign students of any campus in the country. It’s a national phenomenon now, but we are way behind the curve,” says Berkeley International Office Director Ivor Emmanuel.

“If you compare UC Berkeley with our peer institutions, not only in terms of pure numbers but as a percentage of overall enrollment, we really are shy of most of our peers when it comes to international-student enrollment,” he says.

As director of the International Office, which provides support services for overseas students, Emmanuel is fully supportive of the move to broaden campus diversity and attract more international students, who are often extremely motivated to make the most of the opportunity.

“These are not necessarily wealthy families as we would understand the standard. In many cases we’re talking about extreme sacrifice to fund this educational opportunity and parents will sell their home to cover tuition for their child,” Emmanuel says.

In the classroom, Emmanuel points to the benefits for California students in being exposed to the different perspectives and first-hand experiences of international peers, which can offer a window onto the political, economic or social conditions of other societies and cultures.

“You are fostering an environment that allows for problem-solving that is global in nature rather than looking at problems from a narrow, single-nation point of view,” Emmanuel says.

Such positive encounters in the classroom and on campus can spark interest among American students to travel or study abroad — an education in itself. Indeed, on a practical level, many international students help domestic students with foreign-language learning.

Looking beyond academics, Emmanuel says, interacting closely with overseas peers helps domestic students become more cross-culturally sensitive and thus better prepared for the modern workforce, where multinational corporations value graduates who bring a global perspective to their work.

A large portion of the international students who attend Berkeley remain in California following graduation and go on to make valuable contributions in academia and industry.

“A lot of out-of-state students become California residents after they come here, so it’s actually a net gain for California,” said Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor for student affairs, at the chancellor’s briefing. “As opposed to a brain drain, I think it’s a brain gain.”

Born in Shanghai, China, 19-year-old sophomore Jiaxi “Jerry” Zhu is studying mechanical engineering. Zhu, who is carrying 18 units with a 3.86 GPA, spent five years in the Netherlands and speaks Dutch and French in addition to English and his native Mandarin.

Jerry Zhu

Sophomore Jerry Zhu hails from Shanghai, China. Photo Roibín Ó hÉochaidh

“As international students raised in different cultures, we have a lot of different perspectives to bring that allow for comparison and contrast, particularly in non-scientific classes and the humanities, which I think is really helpful because people tend to be more creative in a diverse environment,” he says.

“In the more technical courses like engineering, physics, chemistry and mathematics, coming from China where we’ve had a very strong emphasis on this type of coursework in high school, I can bring that to the table and pass on some methods and approaches in group problem-solving activities.”

In addition to volunteering with the Berkeley International Office, Zhu is a member of the ASUC international students advisory committee, which was established to evaluate the services and resources available to international students.

“For me, it’s really more the extracurricular activities that make me feel valued, and where I can make contributions to the campus community as an international student,” Zhu says.

The positives of having a strong presence of international students stretch beyond domestic students to UC Berkeley itself.

“The fact that Berkeley is a destination for international students who are the best and the brightest contributes to our reputation and reaffirms our status as one of the preeminent public universities,” Emmanuel says.

Emmanuel also believes the presence of international students at Berkeley and other American universities offers the United States a golden opportunity to leverage soft power and enhance its image and relations around the world.

“To the extent that those international students who return to their home countries have had a positive experience of U.S. culture and society during their time at university here, they are going to have internalized some of our values and recognized a lot of the positive attributes of this country,” Emmanuel says.

“In a certain sense, these international students can be future diplomats for this country and can mitigate against negative perceptions that exist in the world about the United States.

“Soft power,” he adds, “is the greatest power you can have.”