In race for international students, US erects hurdles and loses out

A n accumulation of little things can add up to a major change. Before our very eyes, the United States is losing its central role as the preferred destination for students and scholars from all over the world. Its role as the most influential higher education system may be in jeopardy.

Some evidence:

• Last year, for the first time in decades, the number of international students in US colleges and universities did not grow. It remained at 586,000.

• The number of students in the pipeline for future study seems to be decreasing: The numbers of Graduate Record Examinations taken are down 50 percent in China, 37 percent in India, 15 percent in South Korea, and 43 percent in Taiwan. These countries traditionally send the largest numbers of students to the US.

• Many universities report decreases in foreign applications. For example, in my own department, the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, there has been a decline from 88 to 15 applications from China in just one year. Princeton reported a 50 percent decline in Chinese applications and a decline of 28 percent in overall foreign applications. Michigan, Syracuse, Duke, Georgetown, and many others also note steep declines. Fewer applications will mean fewer enrollments.

The world isn't a static place, and the US is not the only player in international higher education. Students and scholars respond to a complex nexus of pushes and pulls when seeking a place to study.

The demand for foreign study remains high: About 2 million students worldwide study outside their home countries now, and that number is expected to grow to 8 million by 2025. While the numbers of foreign students in the US are level or declining, those in other countries are rapidly moving ahead.

There are many causes for the decline of America's international prominence. Sept. 11 is a central factor. The increased concern about security, the Patriot Act, and other restrictions have created a profound change in attitudes and perceptions, both within the US and abroad. The many tales of the difficulties that students and scholars from abroad have in obtaining visas, the perceived disrespect for visa applicants shown at American embassies around the world, and the delays inherent in the entire immigration system have been significant deterrents.

Attitude surveys among students in several key countries by JWT Communications - as well as a wealth of anecdotal evidence - support this. Many prospective international students no longer see the US as a welcoming environment. While foreign students in the US say that they feel reasonably safe and have few complaints, those abroad thinking about studying in the US express fear about safety as well as some criticism of American society.

Other countries - even before Sept. 11 - have moved aggressively into the international education market. Australia and Britain now count on international enrollments to help solve serious financial problems at home by recruiting fee-paying foreigners. The EU wants to encourage students to study in Europe to build future relationships for trade and politics. Japan seeks to bolster its relationships in Asia, and provides "scholarship diplomacy" to students from Asian nations.

For America, the most important implication of its declining presence in global academe is not the more than $12 billion that international students contribute annually to the US economy, but rather the future of US scientific and intellectual leadership.

In the globalized world of science and scholarship, knowledge knows no borders. And the US, with the most successful academic system in the world, benefits from attracting the best and brightest from other countries. Some of this talent remains in the US after completing academic degrees. For example, graduates from China and India - which send the largest numbers of students to the US - stay in the US and contribute greatly to universities and the economy. And even though most foreign graduates do return to their home countries, many maintain their relationship with the US.

To maintain their quality and influence, American universities must continue to attract top-quality students and scholars from abroad. The sign of scientific power, quite literally, is the attractiveness of the university to people from around the world.

If growing security and immigration barriers are allowed to remain, the US will inevitably see a decline in both the quality and the influence of its universities - and this will have lasting implications for the economy, for science and research, and for America's global role.

While it is now time to declare a crisis, American academe has many strengths and it is possible to reverse the decline. The American university system is the best in the world. And many foreigners, who also criticize the US, say that, all else being equal, the US is their choice for study.

But there needs to be a significant and concerted change in government policy to ensure the continued flow of foreign students. If this does not occur, the decline will accelerate, and the inevitable result will be the weakening of a major national resource - the university.

Philip G. Altbach is the Monan Professor of Higher Education at Boston College.

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