Foreign students at US colleges: the benefits are mutual
MUCH as Olive Oyl often found herself the rope in a tug of war between cartoon characters Popeye and Bluto, foreign students in the United States increasingly find themselves the center of a push-pull match that divides educators, politicians, businessmen, and various factions of the government.Skip to next paragraph
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Even while Congress is considering proposals from the Reagan administration to increase support for scholarships to foreign students, recent Immigration and Naturalization Service regulations have bolstered one educator's view that ''foreign students are the most regulated foreigners in the country.''
Marvin Baron, president-elect of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA), estimates that colleges waste resources and thousands of hours of staff time each year helping these students fill out forms - up to four pages long - informing the government of a change in majors or requesting permission to seek a higher degree than previously planned.
''Changing majors is an American tradition,'' says Mr. Baron, who is also deputy director of advisers to foreign students and scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, who adds that some immigration offices have asked for detailed travel plans and curricula vitae.
''It can be a little confusing for foreign students,'' Baron concludes, ''who may start wondering how much they're wanted here.''
In fact not everyone thinks they should be here - at least not in ever-growing numbers or for unlimited periods. Moves in Congress to control the length of stay of foreign students stem in large part from concern that Americans pay for their presence: either immediately, by subsidizing their education, or in the long run, through jobs filled by those who work illegally or stay on after graduation. Yet education officials point out that more than 80 percent of all foreign students are funded from abroad and that eventually better than 90 percent (excluding refugees) return home.
Next after economic concerns come complaints about foreigners taking slots American students might have filled, slowing classroom pace, and taking too many teaching-assistant posts. Now with growing numbers of foreign students filling vacant research positions, the question of national security has been raised.
Despite a reluctance among college officials to speak of foreign students and economic gain in the same breath, there is ample evidence that these students provide a significant economic boost both to their local communities and to the US as a whole. The Institute of International Education in New York estimates the students will spend more than $1.8 billion on living costs alone during the current school year. And in a 1983 IIE report titled ''Absence of Decision,'' Profs. Michael Nacht of Harvard University and Crauford Goodwin of Duke University describe ''the education of foreign students as one of the United States' few (with grain and armaments) remaining export industries on an upward trajectory, and one with few strong competitors.''
In addition, it is clear that some college departments and even entire schools would close without their foreign enrollments. Among the most striking examples are engineering and computer science departments, whose graduate programs have been abandoned by many American students in favor of lucrative jobs with private industry. Foreigners make up more than half of all graduate students in many engineering schools: almost 60 percent at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, about 78 percent at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, for example.
This is true even at the nation's most prestigious schools: Foreigners earn more than half of all doctoral degrees in engineering awarded by Stanford University; at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 20 percent of total enrollment is foreign.