Grinnell College had a problem last spring. Enrollment for the incoming class of 2020 was falling well short of the target of 440 freshmen, and the college had exhausted its waitlist of domestic applicants.
So the esteemed liberal arts school in Iowa dipped into its foreign waitlist. “First time we’ve ever done that,” said Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment. “With all those empty seats, we had a real revenue issue.”
Grinnell wound up with a class of 414, still shy of its goal. But Bagnoli said that was still manageable.
Twenty-three percent of Grinnell’s freshmen now are international students, up from 18 percent in 2014 and 11 percent in 2004. The Class of 2020 includes 97 foreign students from 25 countries. The largest international delegation is 41 freshmen from China.
That’s a whole lot of foreign students for a small-town school in the rural expanse between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
Founded in 1846, Grinnell ranks in the top 20 on the U.S. News & World Report list of liberal arts colleges.
But it is not a household name. Every year, it must hustle to recruit on the East and West coasts and overseas. It uses a mix of merit and need-based aid to lure students. Total enrollment is usually about 1,700. It admitted 28 percent of applicants in 2014, down from 63 percent a decade earlier.
So this international boom is all about the money, right? Wrong, Bagnoli said.
“This didn’t just grow out of a conversation that I was having with” the chief financial officer, he said. “People unfortunately automatically assume that it’s just to address a revenue challenge.”
If it were all about the money, Grinnell could have taken even more international students this year. But Bagnoli said the college denied several foreign applicants with perfect scores on the SAT admission test. The college also gives financial aid to international students in need.
Like Stanford, Dartmouth and most other selective schools, Grinnell is “need-aware” for foreign applicants. That means the college takes financial circumstances into account when making admission decisions.
But Grinnell also pledges to meet full- need for those who get in. More than a third of international students at Grinnell get need-based aid, Bagnoli said: “We don’t just enroll full-pay students from China.”
Bagnoli said Grinnell has been pushing to globalize for academic reasons. Two years ago, the college formed a task force to study its international recruiting and enrollment strategy.
“The questions we were engaging were about what should global learning achieve at Grinnell?” Bagnoli said. “Learning goals.” What kind of curriculum should the college have? What kind of co-curricular activities outside of the classroom?
“We made a deliberate move to identify a goal of having 20 percent of our student body be from other countries,” he said.
The college also wanted no more than a third of its foreign students to come from any one country.
It overshot both of those targets this year. China wound up supplying more than 40 percent of the international students. But Bagnoli said that was “anomalous.”
He has forged a tight bond with one Chinese student: Yifei Zhang.
Zhang, 23, is a graduating senior with a double major in history and mathematics. Bagnoli frequently gets together with Zhang for dinner and other social occasions as part of a Grinnell program to help international students become part of the town and campus community.
“We’ve cooked together, listened to music together, shared customs and stories,” Bagnoli said.
Zhang comes from Xianyang, a large city in Shaanxi, which is an inland Chinese province with a population of more than 37 million. That’s worlds away from an Iowa town with a population of about 10,000. His mother is a college professor, and his father works for the government.
Zhang went to high school in Singapore, and his English has a slight British accent. After he graduates, he is thinking about studying law or seeking to become a history professor.
Zhang said he was drawn to Grinnell because its liberal education format would allow him to take his time choosing a major.
“I wanted to explore subjects a bit before committing,” he said. Zhang said his classes were “very rigorous.”
He also was drawn to a place where he would not feel alone. At Grinnell, it seemed, there was a critical mass of students from around the world.
“I really wanted to go to a school with a significant international population,” he said. “I feared being secluded or something, having trouble integrating with the rest of the student body. This is a very diverse college. That’s why I chose to come here.”
Another factor: Grinnell offered financial aid. “A medium-sized grant,” Zhang said. The full charge for tuition, fees, room and board totals about $60,000 a year.
Zhang said it helps that the cost of living in rural Iowa is lower than in big cities. He also works as a tutor, helping students with calculus and linear algebra, and he has had other campus jobs.
“I’m very grateful that Grinnell was able to offset some of the expense,” he said. “A private college in America can be expensive.”
Zhang said his parents, who also have paid a significant amount for his education, have been completely supportive.
“They wanted me to experience the world in more depth and more breadth,” he said. “In Chinese culture, going to college anywhere is a big thing for the family.”