For the first time since 1971, American colleges and universities have seen a falloff in the number of foreign students.
Visa delays have caused thousands of potential applicants to wonder if it's worth the hassle to try to study in the United States. But even as progress is made on speeding up visas, US higher education is coming to grips with other trends that could weaken its magnetic pull on the world's scholars: a slow economy, the growth of higher education in places like China and India, and aggressive competition from other English-speaking countries.
"Competition is out there, and that's not just a phenomenon that's part of the post 9/11 period; that started well before, and I think we were a little bit asleep at the wheel because the US had been so dominant as a destination for international students," says Ursula Oaks, a spokeswoman for NAFSA: Association of International Educators in Washington.
Foreign enrollment was down 2.4 percent in 2003-04, according to the latest "Open Doors" report by the Institute of International Education (IIE). Some universities saw drops as big as 23 percent.
Overall, undergraduates from abroad declined 5 percent, while graduate students increased 2.5 percent. Offsetting that news on the graduate-student front, however, is a snapshot of first-time international enrollments this fall by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), which shows a 6 percent reduction.
Some countries are using horror stories about the US visa process to market themselves as better alternatives, but it's mainly the coordinated efforts of governments and universities in other English-speaking countries that have caused their foreign enrollments to rise as America's fall.
Australia, Britain, and even Canada have boosted their foreign-student enrollments by double-digit percentages in recent years.
Five international education groups joined together last week and called on President Bush to work with experts on a national strategy to keep foreign students flowing in.
The goodwill these students generate around the world after learning about American society firsthand is essential post 9/11, they argue. In addition, many graduate programs, especially in math and sciences, depend heavily on foreign talent. International students bring about $13 billion a year into the US economy.
In the short term, "we need to be thinking about a major PR effort to convince international graduate students that they are welcome here and that it's not as difficult to get a visa as maybe it was a year or two ago," says John Ebersole, associate provost and dean of extended education at Boston University.
Meanwhile, individual schools are doing what they can to boost recruitment and make life easier for applicants and current students.
Indiana University decided to offer more scholarships this year after it saw its foreign applications drop by 21 percent for graduate students and 14 percent for undergrads. International students have always been eligible for $1,000 to $6,000 of merit aid. But in addition, IU now offers $1,000 to anyone who doesn't win those awards.
"We've been contacted by a number of alumni groups around the world, and they are interested in doing everything they can to assist us," says Christopher Viers, associate dean and director of the office of international services. "Some have recently put together funds to support [IU] students from their home countries.... [Our Korean alumni] designated funds for the student association to help them continue to inform the campus about their country and culture."
IU is also speeding up the application process to give students more time for security clearances. Three-fourths of graduate schools surveyed by CGS report some form of admissions streamlining. Many have offered more guidance about the visa process on their websites.
Counselors on many campus have been busy advising students trying to decide whether to travel home for family events; many fear delays in getting back into the country will disrupt their studies. In a survey last winter at the University of California, Berkeley, 37 percent of international students said they had altered research plans because of visa problems.
International education groups say they're encouraged by the US government's efforts to reduce waits for visas, but they continue to press for the elimination of redundant reviews of low-risk students and well-known scholars.
Dhruv Bahl came from India to study engineering at Boston University. Now a junior, he has traveled home several times and says he doesn't hear about many Indians having visa problems. Last year, the number of students coming from India did grow, by 7 percent, but that was down from the previous year's growth of 12 percent.
As he mans a table at a campus food court to advertise a party sponsored by the Hindu Students Council, Mr. Bahl riffs for a while on the economic climate in the US: "The expense is going up. Even if you have a scholarship the way I do, it just gets more and more and more expensive," he says.
And it's tough to find a job or internship. "People say, 'Wow, you're doing so well, you've got good grades, you've done research projects.'... And then suddenly I tell the person who might want to give me a job that I'm an international student and I'll need sponsorship, and my card just comes back out of their hands."
He would still recommend American universities to friends back home, but he does think US schools or the government can do more - offering better financial aid, for instance - to "reach out and to grab the youth."
He also believes politics makes a difference. "When Bill Clinton [was president] ... a lot of Indian students dreamed about the US, because he came to India, he supported India.... He didn't do things to make us feel like America was a big bully."
Boston University representatives are traveling more to try to counter any negative perceptions of America, Mr. Ebersole says. The school wants to expand overseas offices that currently have only a single mission, such as supporting an American study-abroad program.
BU is also considering setting up a campus in the Middle East, but officials are still weighing the risks. A few American schools have already started down that path, while others are concentrating on expanding their Internet-based education around the world. "For us to be actively present and engaged in the Middle East I think is the right thing to do," Ebersole says. "Whether we do it through technology or a physical presence is what we're debating."
The domestic capacity for graduate education is on the rise in other regions - with Asia's doubling in the past 30 years to the point where it now has roughly as many university students as the US has, according to Heath Brown, research director at CGS.
That may account for part of the drop-off in applicants to the US, but huge numbers of people are still searching for education beyond what their own countries can offer.
"Half the population in the third world is under 20 years of age," Ebersole says. "We in the developed world are going to have to find ways to provide access to these students or we'll be faced with great instability."