Applying to graduate schools is a frustrating task. It’s made even more infuriating when you’re an international student who doesn’t qualify for federal financial aid, like me. And at a time when local assistance programs like the Michigan Promise Zone Scholarship are under threat, it’s even harder to draw attention to the financial woes of international students.

It’s pertinent to mention — and easy to forget — that the effects of the economic climate stretch past national boundaries and affect the ability to afford tuition of prospective international students and local students alike. Unless international students are provided even limited access to scholarships and financial assistance, the University will find its international student population dwindling and the quality of overseas applicants declining.

When I applied to college, my high school classmates bemoaned the University’s aid policy toward international students. Many who found themselves excluded from the pool of funds opted for liberal arts colleges like Carleton College and Macalester College in Minnesota — both of which offered significant scholarship opportunities for overseas applicants.

The lack of funding opportunities means that the University attracts a certain type of international student — one with the ability to pay the burgeoning tuition fees the institution demands. Cast in that light, international students are mistakenly perceived as deep-pocketed and unworthy. But while academic standards dispel that image and help maintain a minimum standard of excellence, a complete absence of substantial financial assistance deters even more qualified prospective applicants.

Those who do attend find themselves trimming the edges of their degree programs. By either accepting credits for advanced high school courses or overloading on courses, financially constrained students attempt to graduate ahead of time. Caught in a frenzied attempt to cut four years in college down to three, these students relinquish the tremendous opportunities offered on campus.

On top of rushed degrees, international students are forced to work or apply for student loans. And while that’s not unusual for college students, the burden on international students is considerably higher. Most international students arrive on F-1 visas, which prohibit off-campus employment, and the search for work-study employment opportunities is arduous in a limited market. In addition, most University-affiliated employers specify nationality or permanent residence in the United States as prerequisites for vacant jobs.

High-interest loans, in turn, are hardly viable options for already-burdened students. Repaying loans restricts options for graduates — international students must work in the U.S. rather than return home to contribute in their own countries.

It’s not surprising that international students haven’t made a concerted effort to obtain aid from the University. Such demands would be countered with a barrage of retorts, particularly in the current recession. A public university awarding funds to international students when in-state students sweat for financial aid would be accused of misplaced priorities.

But consider my proposition — five significant scholarships exclusively earmarked for international students, based both on financial need and merit. That’s hardly an outrageous request. Granted, the extremely limited scholarships would not ease the financial woes of all international students, but they would generate a more competitive pool of applicants and provide a precedent for international students to build upon and rally around.

More importantly, the assistance would protect global representation on campus, particularly if offered along country-specific criteria. Each year, the London School of Economics and Political Science awards renewable yearly scholarships to students from Mauritius, Pakistan, Israel, Brazil and Hong Kong. In Ann Arbor, the number of freshmen from less represented states like Bangladesh or Egypt isn’t likely to increase unless students are provided some codified incentive by the University.

Denied financial aid and feasible scholarships, international students are forced into restrictive options that inhibit both their college experience and future prospects. Unless this burden is eased, representation is protected and more qualified applicants are attracted, only an isolated few will benefit from a University education.

Emad Ansari can be reached at heansari@umich.edu.

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