By Jeffrey Selingo
FEWER FOREIGN GRAD STUDENTS
ARE MAKING THE EFFORT, POST 9/11, TO APPLY TO U.S. SCHOOLS.
mid-October, Bin B. Jie, a postdoctoral research associate
in electrical and computer engineering at the University
of Florida, traveled to Beijing to give a talk and present
a paper at an international conference. Jie, a Chinese
citizen, planned to return to Florida a few days after
the meeting ended.
But when he went to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to
obtain a re-entry visa, he was informed that his case
was being sent to Washington, D.C., for further review.
The reason: Jie was flagged for Visas Mantis, a federal
program that performs security checks on foreign students
and scholars who study any of roughly 200 scientific
fields that are on the government's Technology
Alert List, used to determine whether someone might
have access to sensitive research. The holdup forced
Jie to cancel his trip back to Gainesville. While he
waited in China, he
continued to do some of his work on semiconductor device
and material research over the Internet, but he didn't
have access to his professor or the facilities at the
University of Florida.
A month later, Jie was finally issued a re-entry
visa after embassy officials asked him to return for
a second interview with a letter verifying his employment.
By then, though, the damage was done. The delay had
already affected his professor's schedule for
submitting a paper to a scholarly journal and for a
publication at a conference in California. It also left
Jie a little frustrated and angry. "I had a valid
visa," he says. Now that he's back in Gainesville,
he says that he's less likely to attend an international
conference in the future.
Jie's story is a common one these days, as
international students and scholars attempt to navigate
the more-restrictive visa policies the U.S. government
put in place immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
While there is evidence that the visa process is improving,
the number of foreign students applying to American
institutions continues to decline dramatically. The
perception among overseas students is that getting a
U.S. visa is virtually impossible.
Fewer applications from abroad, of course, eventually
translate into fewer students coming to the United States
to study. In 2003-04, the number of foreign students
at U.S. colleges fell by 2.4 percent, the first drop
in 32 years, according to Open Doors, an annual report
on foreign-student enrollment published by the Institute
of International Education.
Nowhere is the decline more pronounced than in graduate
programs. About half of the 400,000 foreign students
who come to the United States enroll in graduate school.
Foreign graduate applications declined by 28 percent
between the fall of 2003 and the fall of 2004. The number
of students applying from China alone plunged 45 percent.
India dropped by 28 percent. Those two countries supply
a little more than a third of the graduate students
in the United States.
By far, the hardest hit programs are those in engineering.
Foreign applications to graduate engineering programs
dropped an alarming 36 percent last year, according
to the Council of Graduate Schools. Engineering schools
bring in students to study a lot of the subjects on
the government's Technology Alert List, like chemical
and nuclear engineering. And many of the students applying
to the top graduate programs in engineering are foreign.
At the University of Florida, the number of international
graduate applications in engineering dropped 42 percent
between the fall of 2003 and the fall of 2004. The University
of Southern California experienced a 39-percent decline,
while Purdue University saw its numbers fall 54 percent.
Despite the decline in foreign applications, all
three universities, like many of their peer institutions,
held their own when it came to actual enrollment. Southern
California, for instance, ended up enrolling only 22
fewer international graduate students in engineering
last fall. That's because there are always many
more applications than available spots. Even so, few
engineering professors are breathing a sigh of relief.
Although they feel that it is premature to hit the panic
button just yet, the downward trend in international
applications, from China and India in particular, worries
them. "The question is not so much what happened
this year, but what is the trend," says Mark E.
Law, professor and chairman of the electrical and computer
engineering department at the University of Florida.
"No one knows where this is going."
Worries About the Future
The greatest concern to people like Law and others
is what this all could mean for the future of U.S. dominance
in scientific fields. This is especially acute in engineering,
a field in which foreign students account for 55 percent
of all Ph.D. candidates. Foreign students have long
provided the pool of research assistants for university
laboratories, usually helping to do basic research for
government contracts. After graduation, the students
often stay in the United States to take positions in
academe or private industry. If foreign students do
not come to the United States to study, university research
could suffer and, more important, the American economy,
fears Linda P.B. Katehi, dean of the College of Engineering
at Purdue. "We have a very serious problem on
our hands," Katehi says. "If we don't
have the people to hire for research assistants, we
will have to return research funding to the government.
If U.S. industries don't have our graduates, they
are going to have to move their research labs somewhere
in graduate school applications
from these countries between 2003-04
|Source: Council of
Foreign students make up about 70 percent of the
research assistants in engineering at Purdue. Katehi
says they cannot be easily replaced by domestic students,
who typically serve as teaching assistants, because
there are simply not enough bodies to go around. At
Florida, Law says if the number of foreign students
continues to drop, his department would have to look
at shifting some teaching assistants to work as research
assistants in order to keep government contracts. That
would mean "taking a hard look at our curriculum"
to see where teaching assistants could be cut.
What Katehi and Law find ironic is that most foreign
students are working on research projects funded by
the U.S. government, yet it is that same government
that is making it so hard for many foreign students
to come to the United States for graduate school. "Even
if they come, they're sometimes delayed, which
puts a lot of stress on the faculty and the project,"
Katehi says. "Some projects come to a standstill."
But government officials say the visa problems are
not as bad as they were in the year or so after September
11, when the State Department and Department of Homeland
Security were trying to work through problems with myriad
new policies for international students and scholars.
Among the new initiatives were SEVIS, the computerized
system for tracking international students; U.S. VISIT,
the system for registering the arrivals and departures
of all foreigners; and Visas Mantis, which held up Jie,
the University of Florida student. "I honestly
believe we have turned a corner," Janice L. Jacobs,
deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services,
told a congressional committee at a hearing in September.
The State Department, for example, reports that 98
percent of Visas Mantis cases are now cleared within
30 days, compared with the 67-day average reported early
last year by the Government Accountability Office, the
investigative arm of Congress. One reason is that the
State Department no longer has to wait for the FBI to
report back on a name before approving or denying a
visa. As a result, some 2,000 cases have been cleared,
many of them from India and Russia. In addition, the
State Department hired 151 more employees last year
to interview foreign students in embassies and consulates
around the world (anyone seeking a student visa now
must sit for an interview, typically lasting three to
five minutes, with a U.S. consular official).
Those advances, however, came too late to help boost
foreign applications for this academic year. Whether
they will help for this fall's class is still
unclear. The wild card, international-education experts
say, is if prospective students abroad actually believe
that the visa process has improved. "The word
is out on the street that it's hard to get to
the U.S.," says Vic Johnson, the associate director
for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International
Educators. "That perception will survive the measures
that are taken to improve the visa issues. That's
the way rumor mills work. They are taking on a life
of their own. The first thing we need to do is fix the
visa issue, which we are beginning to do. But then there
is a long way to go to fixing our reputation."
That's for sure. Last year, Sartaj Sahni, distinguished
professor and chairman of the computer and information
science and engineering department at the University
of Florida, visited a university in Dubai. When he asked
the undergraduate students there studying computer science
where they wanted to attend graduate school, nine out
of 10 said the United States. "When I asked them
where they were actually going, the same number said
Australia," Sahni recalls. "People are not
even trying to get a visa to come to the U.S. because
the word is out that they're not going to get
Colleges with large foreign enrollments have tried
to ease the path to getting a visa for students they
have accepted. Stella Pang, associate dean for graduate
education at the University of Michigan's College
of Engineering, says officials there instruct international
students to go to a U.S. consulate by June in order
to get a visa by August. If a student encounters problems,
"we connect with the U.S. consulate to let them
know that a particular student is highly qualified and
we have a top-notch program," Pang says. "With
support letters, they usually get a visa." Last
fall, the number of foreign engineering students at
Michigan actually increased by nine students compared
While visa delays and rejections are the primary
reason for the drop in foreign applications to American
engineering schools, it's not the only factor
keeping students away. The visa problems have come at
the same time that American universities are facing
increased competition from other countries. English-speaking
countries—namely Australia, Great Britain, and
Canada—have aggressively recruited students who
before might have come to the United States. And countries
that traditionally have sent many students to the United
States, particularly China, are building their own higher-education
institutions. "China is developing graduate programs
very quickly," says Debra W. Stewart, president
of the Council of Graduate Schools. Chinese universities
planned to enroll 330,000 Chinese students in graduate
programs last year, up 20 percent from the year before,
according to the Ministry of Education. "It's
something we should be very worried about," Stewart
C. Sidney Burrus, dean of the school of engineering
at Rice University, says what is happening with graduate
education in China and Europe "scares" him.
On recent trips to Germany and China, he saw firsthand
what universities there are doing to train engineers.
"They are now coming up with programs that are
similar to ours," Burrus says. "The secretary
of education in China told me that they are emphasizing
creativity and design in engineering because they don't
only want to manufacture products designed in the U.S.
Besides lobbying Washington, D.C., lawmakers to fix
problems with delayed visas for international students,
engineering professors say that American universities
must also do a better job of growing a domestic source
of students. The professors note that Chinese universities
are only going to get more aggressive in recruiting
their own students, while the economy in India—where
the outsourcing of U.S. jobs in information technology
and call centers has lured students there to stay home—is
only going to get stronger. "We would have faced
this situation eventually, it's just that the
visa thing accelerated it," says the University
of Florida's Law. "The solution is to recruit
more U.S. students. They don't have a visa issue."
But it could take years to attract enough American
students to engineering programs to make up for the
loss of international students. The short-term solution,
engineering deans and professors say, is to make the
necessary changes to the visa process that now holds
up international students wanting to study in the United
States. The chief target for changes is the Visas Mantis
system. College officials are pressing the Department
of Homeland Security to make the clearances valid for
the duration of a student's study rather than
the current one year. They say multiple clearances are
unnecessary since the government now uses several methods
to track the entrances and exits of all foreigners.
in graduate school applications from
foreign students by field between 2003-04
|Source: Council of
Johnson, the associate director for public policy
at Nafsa: Association of International Educators, says
that the government needs to give clearer directions
to counselor officers who he says are calling for reviews
of far too many people. "The counselor officers
don't want to be the one who lets the next terrorist
into the country, but in the process they are keeping
very qualified students out as well," he says.
What's more, there is evidence that the additional
clearances are keeping foreign students already enrolled
at American colleges from traveling outside the United
States. Many universities are discouraging their international
students from going home or attending international
conferences out of concern that they may not be able
to get back into the country.
Hussan Aref, dean of the College of Engineering at
Virginia Tech, says a Russian graduate student there
recently was forced to turn down an invitation to give
a lecture at a conference in Moscow because he learned
he would have to wait weeks to return. The student was
also going to visit his family he hadn't seen
in a few years. "We want our students to have
that kind of exposure and the fact that they can't
go is bad thing," Aref says. Aref, who serves
on the board of the National Scientific Organizations,
says he is also concerned that multiple clearances may
be discouraging scientific groups from holding international
meetings on U.S. soil. "They want to be sure all
their invited speakers can actually make it."
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security
say they are studying whether to make Visas Mantis clearances
valid for the duration of a student's stay, along
with another proposal to refine the Technology Alert
List so it's less inclusive.
But other changes to the visa process being pushed
by colleges are less likely to happen. Johnson, for
instance, wants counselor officers to have the authority
to waive personal interviews in some cases, but the
State Department says they are needed to collect biometric
data from visa applicants.
Colleges also want the government to do away with
a $100 fee that international students have to pay for
the upkeep of Sevis, the federal database that monitors
foreign students. A few American universities, including
the University of Texas-Austin and Rice, have just started
to reimburse students for the fee out of fear that it
could further damage their international enrollments.
It's what little power the universities have
to control their own destiny when it comes to foreign
students choosing where to study. "We came to
rely—probably too much—on foreign students
just coming without much effort on our part,"
says Florida's Law. "Now we have to work
for them, compete with other countries for them, and
let them know why our universities are still the best."
Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in