PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo FEBRUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 6
Special Double Issue: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
Difficult Crossing - By Jeffrey Selingo  - Illustration by Dan Page

By Jeffrey Selingo


ON THE COVER: Difficult Crossing - Between 2003-2004, applications from abroad to U.S. graduate engineering schools declined 36 percent. Post 9/11 visa restrictions continue to discourage foreign applicants.In 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 else."

Changes in graduate school applications
from these countries between 2003-04
  Applications First-time enrollment
-45% -8%
-28% -4%
-14% -11%
Middle East -4% -2%
Source: Council of Graduate Schools

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 it."

Foreign Affairs

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 with 2003.

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 adds.

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. and Japan."

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.

Changes in graduate school applications from
foreign students by field between 2003-04
  Applications First-time enrollment
-24% -12%
-21% -7%
-36% -8%
Humanities -17% -6%
Life science/agriculture -24% -10%
Physical science/earth science
-22% +6%
Social science -20% -10%
Source: Council of Graduate Schools

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 Washington, D.C.


Difficult Crossing - By Jeffrey Selingo
Engineering's New Look - By Thomas K. Grose
The Big Squeeze - By Mary Lord
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TECH VIEW: Rebuilding After 9/11 - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon

3rd Nano Training Bootcamp - July 12 - 15, 2005 - Washington D.C.


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