A steep decline in graduate school applications from foreign students has university administrators pushing the federal government to reform the visa process. Their argument: The trend could cost US schools much-needed revenue and research help, and make America seem isolated in the eyes of the world.
International graduate student applications for this fall are down 32% compared with a year ago, according to a recent survey, and schools are extending application deadlines so they don't lose students still negotiating US bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, in public comments and private lobbying, universities are urging federal officials to speed up visa applications.
Officials from several California schools and the Department of Homeland Security discussed foreign student matters at a gathering in San Diego. Representatives from a handful of prominent schools, including the presidents of Yale and Princeton, met in New York recently to explore ways to use the influence of their trustees to help make their case.
Universities acknowledge that the importance of foreign students is not obvious to the American public, which has security concerns after one of the Sept 11 hijackers entered the country on a student visa. Some may wonder why foreign students take up 600,000 slots in American universities in the first place.
But administrators insist those slots are as important now as ever.
“This is one of America's most effective forms of diplomacy,'' said Douglas Kincaid, vice provost for international studies at Florida International University in Miami, where foreign enrollment is down 10%. “We're educating people who will be in influential positions in science and industry and government around the world.''
More than 90% of graduate schools reported their foreign applications for this fall declined, according to a survey of 113 universities last month by the Council of Graduate Schools.
Undergraduate applications also are down, but not as much, likely because fewer undergraduates plan to work on sensitive technologies that require a more thorough background check.
Feeling the effects are big, public universities and elite, private ones like Harvard, whose president, Lawrence Summers, reported a sharp drop in international applications to each of Harvard's nine schools in a recent letter to federal officials. Many schools count on foreign students to teach classes and fill labs.
“We don't have domestic students to take their place, mostly in fields like science and technology,'' said Stephen Dunnett, vice president for international education at the University at Buffalo, part of New York's state university system. The school has 3,600 foreign students, with applications down one-third this year.
Foreign students often pay higher tuition and soak up little financial aid because they must demonstrate financial self-reliance to get a visa. More than 75% of their funding comes from outside the country, according to the Institute of International Education.
Foreign students also contribute US$12bil to the US economy, according to IIE.
Experts cite several factors for the dip in applications, including diminished esteem for America abroad, rising tuition fees at US schools and increasingly competitive alternatives in Europe and Asia.
But the difficulty, or perceived difficulty, of getting a student visa quickly appears to be the primary cause.
“It's really frustrating because there is no basic logic to getting a visa,'' said Moussa Dao, an FIU computer engineering student whose two brothers have been unable to get visas to follow him here, and who hasn't returned home to Ivory Coast since 1999 for fear he would not be readmitted.
The State Department, which is giving some students priority interview slots, issued 474,000 student visas last year, accepting 74% of applications. That is down from 560,000, or 80%, in 2001.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called last week for Congress to review visa restrictions, and Ridge discussed visas at a recent meeting with college presidents.
“We all want foreign students to continue to come here,'' said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Homeland Security Department. “We want the United States to continue to be the destination for education.''
There continue to be more international applicants than spaces available for them, with no evidence the total number of foreign students here has yet declined.
Still, schools say more is help is needed for internationals, including an ombudsman to investigate cases that seem to disappear in the system. Experts say many foreign students feel they won't be welcome here – beliefs that visa delays only fuel.
“They say, 'I can go to Canada, Australia. Why do I need to go to the United States and put myself in a place where I'm not welcome?'' Dunnett said. – AP