ANNAPOLIS – A messy visa process coupled with more competition for international students has university administrators worried about attracting new foreign students in the coming years.
The delays, expenses and scrupulous background checks are making students increasingly apprehensive about applying in the United States, said Janene Oettel, director of the international students and scholars office at Towson University.
In the three years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, state campuses experienced a 9.5 percent decrease in foreign student enrollment — the highest overall decline in the nation, according to statistics from the Institute of International Education, a non-profit group that promotes educational exchanges.
Maryland’s loss exceeded the 1.8 percent nationwide decrease experienced on other campuses in that same time period. (Statistics do not take into account enrollment data for 2004-2005, which has not been released.)
“I don’t know why Maryland experienced a bigger drop,” said Hey-Kyung Koh, a researcher at the Institute for International Education. “This year, the biggest decreases occurred in large research and doctoral institutions.”
C.D. Mote Jr., president at University of Maryland, College Park, one of the state’s largest research institutions, is especially troubled by what such statistics represent.
“Other countries are hustling to recruit international students,” he said. “Everywhere you go you find universities who want to be players in the university research scene.”
Foreign students are desired because they usually pay full tuition, often are talented students who conduct valuable research and bring enriching perspectives to state campuses, administrators say.
“Foreign students are cutting edge in fields like science and technology,” said Valerie Woolston, College Park’s International Education Services director.
For example, last year international students and their dependents contributed nearly $13 billion to the U.S. economy, according to NAFSA, an association of international educators.
Visa problems are only compounding the competitive market economy, making American universities less attractive to foreign students.
When foreign students apply, the State Department issues a visa that the federal Department of Homeland Security must authorize.
“This creates a lot of bureaucracy,” said Rawand Darwesh, an Iraqi Fulbright scholar studying at American University in Washington, D.C.
Darwesh said even after completing all the required paperwork, he spent three long hours with 24 other Iraqi scholars in an interview at JFK airport after they flew over from Amman, Jordan, eight months ago.
Many students from Iran and Pakistan are facing a lot of immigration problems right now, said Samir Khuller, a computer science professor at College Park. Khuller had an Iranian student slotted to join his program this past fall, but because of delays the student hasn’t arrived.
“We have never had many Middle Eastern students, and their decline is much sharper,” said Woolston.
There was only one Iraqi scholar in Maryland, at Frostburg State University in 2002 and none last year. State universities lost 49 Iranians between 2001 and 2002.
These problems are not only for students from the Middle East.
For example, “16 out of 25 applicants from Nigeria and Kenya were denied.” said Robert Batten, Bowie State’s international student services director. Nigeria and Kenya provide Maryland with its largest student populations from Africa.
Batten said he fears stricter immigration policies are going to keep them away permanently.
“The new immigration bill wants tougher regulations for non-immigrants and that includes our students,” he said.
But the picture isn’t totally bleak.
The number of student visas issued actually increased by 1 percent over the past year, but is well below the 2001 level, according to statistics from the State Department.
At the same time, student visa applications have decreased 15 percent from 2001, because programs in other countries are becoming more attractive.
“Other countries like Canada and the UK are now benefiting, because they are attracting the students,” said Darwesh, who said the loss endangers foreign relations.
Upon degree completion, student visas expire and they must go through another complicated process and apply for a different visa to allow them to legally work in the U.S.
“They should not restrict foreign students from finding work in the drastic ways that they do,” said Oettel.
However, Oettel remains optimistic about the growing pools of educated students seeking higher education and the number of choices the United States offers them.
“We have a lion’s share of the product. We are going to be solidly in the business of educating the world for years,” she said.
But as students are choosing from a long list of schools, many watch friends and family members wait for up to six months just to receive their visa.
“In the past, people from Muslim countries dreamed of coming to study here,” said Justin Valanzola, spokesman for the Muslim Students Association at College Park. “Now, many do not think it is worth it.”
Administrators at the University of Maryland, College Park, are starting to see the effect of the apprehension Valanzola and many others witness.
College Park has 3,726 foreign students, the most international students in the state, but saw foreign graduate applications plummet 36 percent this past fall.
In the past, the university retained a bulk of its large population by attracting students from China and India.
Chinese and Indians make up 25 percent of foreign students in Maryland and represent the largest demographic.
Both populations have actually increased in the three years since Sept. 11.
But retention is now getting more difficult, administrators say.
“China and India have booming economies and very good grad schools,” said Woolston. “I think so many other countries have realized how worthwhile foreign students can be for their student body.”
If foreign students continue to stay away, a dangerous rift will develop between the U.S. and other countries, said Darwesh, who advocates for a specific program to quell misunderstanding between the U.S. and the Middle East.
“Logically this decrease will not serve the diplomacy of the U.S. — less students means less contact and less interaction — and (on) all fronts this is a loss.” – 30 – CNS-12-15-04