The number of foreign students attending colleges in the Washington area has fallen by about 10 percent since September 2001, according to a report that shows the first nationwide decline in three decades.
Educators blame the decrease on the tightening of the U.S. visa system since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and on a perception by foreign students that the United States is less welcoming. Other factors include rising global competition and rising tuition costs, education officials say.
"If the trend continues, we will see a significant decline in enrollment, as well," said Nariman Farvardin, dean of the University of Maryland's school of engineering.
(Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
The area still has the fourth-largest concentration of foreign college students in the country, with 19,552 students in the 2003-04 school year, according to the report by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit group that promotes educational exchanges. But some local colleges have seen a pronounced decline. At American University, for example, foreign enrollment has plunged nearly 40 percent since September 2001, because of both a falloff in the number of degree-earning students and the closing of an English-language institute.
"We're very concerned about it," said Robert A. Pastor, the university's vice president of international affairs.
Foreign students are prized in part because they usually pay full, out-of-state tuition. Beyond tuition, those in the Washington area spend about $230 million a year on everything from rent to pizza, according to the Institute of International Education. In addition, the students bring different perspectives that enrich academic life, university administrators say.
"In a post- 9/11 world, American students need to understand much better the world's complexities," Pastor said. "By their very presence, international students bring the world to our campus."
But the tightening of the U.S. visa system has resulted in greater difficulties and delays for prospective students.
"The big problem is, it's hard to get a visa," said Huayu Wu, 25, a Chinese doctoral student in engineering at George Washington University. He says several of his friends in China were discouraged from applying because of lengthy waits for U.S. visas.
University officials have become exasperated, too. C.D. Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about five doctoral students that his school admitted from Tsinghua University, a top science and technology school in China. The students applied for U.S. visas in April 2003 and were told they would have to undergo security checks. By this past August, they hadn't received visas.
"They have made other plans, and are lost to the U.S.," said Mote, who warned: "Once the pipeline closes, it dries up completely. Those five students from China will tell others coming along not to bother applying here."
Additional security checks are just one hurdle in getting a visa. Under rules introduced in May 2002, most students must travel to a U.S. diplomatic post for an interview, sometimes in a faraway city. They also must pay new fees.
"The process is just so much more difficult now that it causes some people to feel quite humiliated," said Julia Findlay, director of international programs at George Mason University, where foreign student enrollment has declined 8 percent in the past three years, to 1,160 students.
Not everyone believes the slowdown in foreign enrollment is necessarily a bad thing. Legislators say the country needed to make its immigration system more secure, noting that one of the hijackers in the 2001 attacks arrived on a student visa but never attended school.
"Congress quite properly directed that the student visa program be tightened," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of 2002 legislation that changed the system, said in a statement.
The State Department has been trying to reduce the inconvenience for qualified students. It has ordered embassies to give priority to student visa applicants, and it has automated a security-check system for students of science and technology who need special clearance.
The number of student visas issued actually increased by 1 percent over the past year, but is well below the 2001 level. And student visa applications have decreased 15 percent from 2001.
State Department officials say they are concerned because foreign students are future leaders who will take back to their countries an understanding of U.S. society and politics. "There is a perception out there [among foreign students] . . . that visas are part of the problem. What we want to say is, it was a challenge, it was a problem, but we have turned a corner," said Angela Aggeler, spokeswoman for the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
But it's not clear whether the decline in international students will be reversed soon.
Nationally, 572,509 foreign students attended U.S. universities and community colleges in the 2003-04 school year, down 2.4 percent from the previous year, according to the report released this month. It was the first decrease after 32 years of steadily rising enrollment.
The report did not have numbers for this fall, but there are worrisome signs, educators say. A recent survey by the Council of Graduate Schools found that applications from foreign students to graduate schools plummeted 28 percent for the current school year. First-time enrollment, however, fell just 6 percent, because a higher percentage of the applicants were admitted and accepted the offers.
At the University of Maryland, officials were stunned to see foreign graduate applications plunge 36 percent for this fall's class, though the decline in new students was far less. The university has about 3,000 foreign graduate students.
"If the trend continues, we will see a significant decline in enrollment, as well," said Nariman Farvardin, dean of the university's Clark School of Engineering.
Visas are just part of the problem, he says. There is also increasing competition for top international students -- from universities in other English-speaking countries and from expanding institutions in such nations as China.
"We are not the only game in town anymore," Farvardin said.
The decline is particularly troubling because foreign students make up a significant percentage of science and engineering graduate classes, academic officials say. Many international students stay in the United States after graduation, often as leaders in their fields. At Maryland's engineering school, for example, 101 of the 193 tenured or tenure-track faculty are foreign-born. Most studied in the United States.
"Our nation needs to recognize this is an issue," said Farvardin, who is from Iran.
Not all universities are seeing a falloff in international students. At Georgetown University, for example, foreign graduate student enrollment has risen by 8 percent since fall 2001, offsetting a decline among undergraduates.
But many colleges are scrambling to ensure they don't lose more students. The president of George Mason University, Alan G. Merten, recently visited Asia, the United States' leading source of foreign students, to recruit applicants and form partnerships with universities there. American University is developing a "junior year abroad in reverse" program to bring foreign students here.
And Washington area educators are taking advantage of their proximity to power to push for a more streamlined visa process.
"I've been sort of playing Paul Revere on this subject for the past year and a half, talking to the Commerce Department, the secretary of state, White House staff, and making speeches about it," said Stephen J. Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University.
Pastor said the presence of foreign students is especially critical at a university in the nation's capital.
"One could argue that there is not sufficient awareness among many of our nation's leaders as to how events can be viewed differently in other countries," he said. "We view our mandate at American University to make sure this next generation of leaders does not have that weakness."