Polls continue to reflect broad American interest in ethnic and cultural diversity on college campuses. That's why a survey showing a dramatic falloff in the growth rate of foreign students coming to US colleges and universities gives more than a little pause.
Even though the number of foreign students in the US in 2002-2003 was up again this year, the increase was less than 1 percent, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE), a nonprofit organization that released its annual "Open Doors" report this week.
That slower rate has more meaning, considering it comes after five years of steady increases averaging 4.9 percent.
Could a stiffening of visa rules and screening after Sept. 11, plus a perception of more antiforeign discrimination in the US, be keeping students from coming to the US for school?
The decline was most dramatic among Muslim countries - overall, 10 percent. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were both down 25 percent, for example. But even in some countries that regularly send a lot of students to the US, such as Germany and Brazil, there was a decline.
New regulations at US embassies that began in May require individual screening for many foreign students. They have helped create long lines outside consulates. A proposed rule by the Department of Homeland Security to charge $100 fee for students coming to study in the US - saying that the money would be used to help offset the cost of a foreign-student tracking system - could also become a factor that works to keep students away from US schools.
Countries posting the highest number of students coming to the US, such as India and China, also are seeing more students go elsewhere. The number of Chinese students attending higher-ed institutions in Britain rose 36 percent in the same time period as the IIE survey; from India - a 16 percent increase (compared with an 11 percent rise in Indians coming to the US for school.)
One reason American higher education remains the best in the world is that it's open to diversity and attracts the brightest from everywhere. Foreign students bring not only money to US colleges (some $12 billion a year) - they make a significant contribution to research. And if they return home, as they typically do, they take back skills and values that help their countries.
Congress and the State Department (which helped fund the IIE survey) should keep an eye on this trend.