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Invisible Borders: The case for diversifying Princeton’s international student body

Jean Shin / The Daily Princetonian

As one of only seven American institutions to offer need-blind admissions to international applicants, Princeton appears to do more than most universities to help students of all backgrounds from around the globe. This includes supporting a crucial, yet often overlooked group necessary to creating a vibrant campus community: low-income international students. Despite need-blind admission, the University still does not do enough to attract low-income students globally and integrate them into the community. 

In order to achieve multifaceted diversity that goes beyond America’s borders, the University must acknowledge the impediments of class, province, and socio-economic background in shaping a truly diverse student body. Princeton should increase the accessibility of outreach programs and application information to schools of all sorts, extend holistic admission practices, and expand initiatives of financial support post-acceptance to mitigate barriers preventing international students from accessing elite American institutions.


There are structural truths inherent to educational systems that lead to a disproportionate representation of middle to high-income international students who hail from elite private schools and wealthier regions abroad. Students from high-income backgrounds who have access to English lessons, private schools, and external college counselors, are far more likely to be able to study in the U.S. Studying at international high schools provides the cultural and educational background necessary to have a chance of admission at highly competitive American universities, meaning that most international applicants ultimately come from them. 

International schools are simply defined as institutions that use English as the primary language of instruction in regions where it is not. Originally meant to serve expats living abroad, they have transformed into highly versatile institutions that vary in terms of school system and curriculum, with an emphasis on a transient, multilingual student body. Staffed with well-connected admissions offices designed to enable admission into U.S. universities and taught under systems designed for the same goal, it is evident how pivotal international schools are in facilitating college admissions abroad. Comparatively, public schools are designed to meet local needs, not the standards of universities time zones away. Even with need-blind admissions and offering fee waivers, Princeton does not do much to equalize the playing field when its application favors international students who self-select before the admissions process can even begin. 

However, the fact that wealth offers an advantage to applicants is not unique to international students. The bigger issue with accepting concentrated groups of students from such prevalent international schools is that they aren’t very “international” to begin with, which results in a lack of dimension in the voices of the international community on campuses. International schools are often specifically modeled after Western education systems, offering extensive Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, learning American history and government in lieu of the history of their native countries, and hosting Homecomings and spirit weeks just like an average American high school would, with the majority of teachers being white or American. In fact, in Hong Kong and other countries, some international high schools require students to be foreign passport holders, which has led to many wealthy families purchasing a second passport for their child while making these schools inaccessible to the majority of students who can’t afford one.

The students at these international schools are by no means steeped in their local cultures and there’s growing recognition of this underlying Western influence: Calls for reform to decolonize the IB system and combat anti-racism are only growing in international schools. While having an American high school experience is by no means an objective negative, it does mean that the international student body, often celebrated as bringing new perspectives, experiences, and cultures, may be less diverse than we think.   

We cannot view internationalism as a box to check. International students do not share the same opinions and experiences just because they share nationalities. The experience of an upper-middle-class boy in Jakarta attending an international school is going to be very dissimilar to a lower-class girl who attended a public school. Yet students who share cultural upbringings often do view the world in similar ways: In all likelihood, that boy from Jakarta will have more in common with an American student. With this in mind, are vital new viewpoints really being brought in to the fullest extent with the current system of admissions? Or are they simply the same ideologies in different packaging and passport colors?

Thus, we arrive at a difficult but important question: What is the place of international students in the Princeton student body, and in colleges at large? It is unfair to place the burden of representing their entire home country on an international student, and it is far from true that every international student is swimming in cash and privilege. However, international students as a collective represent a unique channel which can support Princeton in better fulfilling its goals to foster a diverse campus with chances for students to interact with individuals from completely distinct backgrounds and create dialogue across a wide range of issues. We need a broader range of students who have learned from curriculums resident to their native country, under teachers who aren’t Western, and with diverse cultural roots. For this reason, we should strive for more international students with a mosaic of backgrounds.


In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action last summer, it has become more pressing than ever to maintain strong commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion on a global scale. When universities such as Princeton can no longer explicitly factor in ones’ racial/ethnic background, this hurts low-income, first-generation students living everywhere, including outside the U.S. For international students, the system is also so skewed against them, compounded by other factors such as the pandemic and geopolitical conflicts

So what exactly can Princeton do? Unlike implementing fee waivers or financial aid, the solution is not a single policy, but rather a combination of measures that takes time to tackle the issue at the root. Making Princeton more accessible internationally to local, publicly-funded schools through information sessions and outreach would plant the seeds for diversifying the type of applicants received and from which schools and regions they come from. There still is much more to be done with financial aid post-admissions that would also benefit low-income international students and help shape whether they make the decision to attend at all.

The University must not restrict the recipients of its resources and connections to those attending international schools. This creates injustice that gives unfair advantages to already privileged students, when there exists equally qualified students in smaller, local schools across the world. Princeton should continue to develop holistic approaches to admission that consider the high school you attended, the region you are from, and household income brackets in order to prevent shutting out talent from disadvantaged households and to ensure that even though affirmative action has been banned, there still are ways to make higher education equitable to all. Princeton has the capacity to usher marginalized voices into classrooms, colleges, continents where they previously were unheard — all we need is for these initiatives to begin.

Sophia Zuo is a first-year contributing columnist from Hsinchu, Taiwan, and can be reached at

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