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Colleges angle for influential foreign students like Bo Guagua

/ Source: Reuters

His academic record was spotty, but as he applied for graduate studies in the United States, Bo Guagua would have looked like quite a catch to many universities, according to researchers who study college admissions.

The young man had deep connections to China's elite; his father was an up-and-coming politician poised to enter the Communist Party leadership and his mother came from a renowned military family.

On top of all that, young Bo appeared to have access to considerable wealth -- and was not shy about spending it.

"Colleges are always happy to see those students enroll," said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

International students in general are hot commodities now at many schools -- and one of apparent means and influence? "That's a twofer," Hawkins said, meaning Bo brought two assets to the table in his application.

Foreign students with clout can generate positive press for a university in their native land, inspire other well-connected students to apply and eventually become generous donors, Hawkins said. "They can create a pipeline" for the university. Those opportunities are really too good to pass up."

Despite a checkered undergraduate career at Britain's Oxford University, where he was suspended for a year for poor academic performance, Bo, now 24, was admitted to a master's program at Harvard University's prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government.

He was due to graduate next month, though his future is unclear now that his father has been stripped of power in a corruption scandal in China and his mother has been arrested on charges of murdering a British friend of the family.

Harvard officials would not comment on Bo's application to the Kennedy School. In general, though, applicants are given a "holistic review" that considers not just their academic record but their leadership potential and how they would contribute "to a richly diverse learning environment," said Harvard spokesman Doug Gavel.

About 40 percent of students at the Kennedy School are foreign, Gavel said, and financial aid is available. Bo's father, Bo Xilai, has said his son was on a scholarship.

While the details of Bo's interaction with Harvard are not known, admissions officers at other universities said well-connected foreign families routinely try to use their clout to secure slots for their children.

Douglas Christiansen, the dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University, said he frequently receives letters from overseas letting him know -- none too subtly -- that this applicant's father is a high-ranking government minister or that applicant's mother comes from a prominent family.

"Oh heavens, yes," Christiansen said. "You get letters, you get calls. All the time."


Many of his correspondents frankly admit that they don't know the student applying for admission -- but recommend him nonetheless, on the basis of his family name. "It's actually quite amusing," Christiansen said.

At Vanderbilt, a highly regarded university in Nashville, Tennessee, applicants do not get special consideration because their parents are famous, Christiansen said. However, if their powerful relatives are considered likely donors, the students can sometimes get a leg up in admissions, he said.

Some universities also consider the prestige a highly-placed foreign student could bring to their campus, said Jerome Lucido, director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California. "It would be naive to say that a student's standing abroad is not a resource or an asset to the institution," he said. "It can be a consideration in admissions."

In a survey last year of 462 top admissions officials at nonprofit colleges and universities across the United States, one in four said they had experienced pressure from senior administrators, trustees or university fundraisers to admit certain students.

In some pockets of the education world, the pressure was even greater. Top admissions officers at 45 percent of private, PhD-granting universities said they had been pressured to admit certain students by the fundraising office, according to the survey, conducted by a trade publication, Inside Higher Ed.

The survey also found a growing eagerness to admit foreign students who can pay the full cost of tuition, room and board.

Universities sometimes refrain from boasting about foreign celebrity students while they're on campus, for security reasons. Xi Mingze, the daughter of China's vice president, is said to be studying at Harvard under an assumed name. Other Chinese leaders who have sent their children to Harvard in recent years include former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing and Chen Yuan, chairman of the China Development Bank.

International enrollment in U.S. universities has soared in recent years, to nearly 725,000, according to the Institute of International Education. Nearly 300,000 are graduate students. China sends the most students to the U.S., but India isn't far behind, and interest has surged in Saudi Arabia as well.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, foreign students make up 18 percent of this year's freshman class. Admissions director Philip Ballinger says he does not take a family's clout overseas into account when screening applications. "We're kind of purists here," he said.

Yet with the state cutting subsidies and the university's budget under strain, Ballinger said that level of purity may not be sustainable. At some point, he said, he may have to think about screening foreign applicants for their capacity to help boost revenue and prestige.

"There's more pressure for public universities to start talking about that," he said. "No doubt about it."