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South Korean student being fingerprinted and photographed at JFK International Airport in 2004. By Mary Altaffer/AP Photos

South Korean student being fingerprinted and photographed at JFK International Airport in 2004. By Mary Altaffer/AP Photos

America's new restrictions on foreign students are understandable. But the consequences go beyond security

In what amounts to big business, international students contribute more than $12 billion to the U.S. economy each year. Yet while other countries have begun soliciting foreign students, and watching their numbers grow, the United States has become an increasingly inhospitable environment for them.

The United States remains by far the largest recipient of foreign students, with 586,000, more than a quarter of the world's total. It attracts more foreign students than its three closest rivals (the United Kingdom, Germany, and France) combined.

A large majority come here from developing and newly industrializing countries, with 55 percent arriving from Asia. The top five countries sending scholars to the United States are India, China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Iran was once one of the top "sending" countries, but since the downfall of the Shah in 1979, there are virtually no Iranian students here. Indonesia's recent economic troubles, combined with the post-September 11 terrorism attack in Bali, have contributed to the decline in the number of Indonesian students studying in the United States—down 10 percent in the past year. Over the same period, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both with historically strong academic ties to the United States, have seen declines of 25 percent, and the United Arab Emirates 16 percent. Continued growth in enrollments from some major Asian suppliers, notably India—which in 2001-02 replaced China as the largest sending country—and South Korea, have partially offset these losses.

American higher education's place in the world did not change as a result of September 11, yet shifts are evident: While the total number of students attending college outside of their home nations is growing worldwide, increases in foreign-student enrollments in the United States came to a stop in 2002-03.

The implementation of the computer-based tracking program SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System), by the Department of Homeland Security, and the imposition of new fees for students from abroad to pay for the system have been damaging. Coming to study in the United States has turned into an obstacle course, and prospective students are increasingly leery of stringent, changing, arbitrary, and sometimes inconsistent government regulations regarding visas, requirements for reporting to government agencies, and the like.

In developing countries, and especially in the Islamic world, students describe being treated with disrespect by officials at U.S. embassies. American university administrators report that a significant number of students are being denied visas or are delayed so long that they are unable to study here.

Recent attitude surveys also indicate that students considering studying abroad see the United States as a less safe place to study compared with competitors such as Australia and Britain. But safety concerns do not yet loom large, at least in the absence of additional major terrorist attacks in the United States. And foreign students currently studying in this country report feeling quite safe. Only a small number of them returned home immediately following September 11, and most of those who fled have since come back to complete their studies.


KEY COMPETITOR nations have placed much greater emphasis on attracting foreign students to their universities and see the increased American barriers working to their advantage. Australia is an especially aggressive recruiter, with Britain and New Zealand not far behind. Governments in all three have stimulated an active foreign education policy as a means of reducing local expenditures on higher education.

The changes taking place in Europe are equally important, although in a different direction. As a result of the European Union's Bologna process—aimed at achieving shared standards among universities, including transferable credits—more European students will probably choose to study within the EU, where costs are low. Once the process is fully implemented, which should happen in the next five years or so, the EU might well turn abroad to lure students from outside Europe, both to earn income and to contribute to EU foreign policy aims.

The United States, for its part, has never had a national approach to international higher education. And now, what policies do exist act as barriers in the name of national security. Moreover, the already scant number of federal scholarships for overseas students declined last year.

Because of the size and excellence of the American academic system, the United States will likely remain a major player in international study. Whether or not it will be able to maintain its competitive edge and leadership is another matter.

Philip G. Altbach


Philip G. Altbach holds the J. Donald Monan, SJ, Chair in Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education. His essay is drawn from "Higher Education Crosses Borders" in Change Magazine's March/April 2004 issue.

 

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