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 …