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msnbc.com
updated 8/24/2007 7:49:46 AM ET 2007-08-24T11:49:46

Enrollment of international students in U.S. universities could be showing the first signs of recovery after years of weakness following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as the government refined the visa application process and schools try to get ahead in the global competition for foreign talent.

In the 2005-2006 school year, 564,766 international students attended accredited U.S. higher education institutions, according to the most recent report by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit partly funded by the federal government to track student mobility in and out of U.S. borders.

The number was flat compared to the year before, but it marked the end of a two-year decline first seen in 2003, which raised alarms within academic circles and among education officials.

Because most international students spend years in their programs, the total enrollment number moves slower than the new enrollment number, which was up 8 percent in the fall of 2005.

"The dramatic decline after Sept. 11 seems to have been redressed by efforts from the government and schools," said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, an organization of graduate school deans.

A more recent IIE online survey shows the recovery holding up. In the 2006-2007 school year, 52 percent of U.S. campuses reported increases in new international enrollments, and only 20 percent reported declines.

International students, especially at the graduate level, are considered an important brainpower infusion to the United States. In certain fields like engineering and physical sciences, foreign students account for more than 40 percent of total students at the graduate level, according to CGS.

"There is not a strong domestic pipeline in those disciplines,” said Catharine Stimpson, dean of New York University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “The U.S. has a strong dependence on international talents.”

NYU has constantly ranked among top five U.S. schools with the largest international student population, with the biggest number of students coming from Asian countries and studying sciences.

Though the reasons behind the international enrollment fluctuation are still been debated, the ups and downs of new enrollment coincide with the total number of the student visas issued by the U.S. government.

The 8 percent increase in 2005 new enrollment reflects an 8 percent increase in student visas issued the same year. In contrast, student visas dropped 20 percent in 2002 from the year before and remained at that level for the next two years. Total enrollment of foreign students declined in 2003 for the first time in two decades, down 2.4 percent, and lost another 1.3 percent in 2004.

As part of homeland security efforts, all student visa applicants were required to participate in an interview at local U.S. consulates. A Student and Exchange Visitor Information System was also introduced to keep better track of foreign student mobility. But the high volume of applications and new procedures caused a long backlog at many locations. In the first years of the program, the times for scheduling interviews at some locations could be unpredictable.

At the same time, international competition for the world’s top minds intensified, with other English-speaking countries launching government-led programs to promote their education systems to foreign students. Cheaper tuition and living expenses, together with a better chance to stay for work after school, presented an attractive mix to international students.

Countries that traditionally accounted for a large number of those students, such as India and China, also invested heavily in their own education systems. In particular, the countries expanded their graduate programs to retain their top minds at home.

International applications to U.S. graduate programs were down 28 percent in 2004, and another 5 percent in 2005, according to a separate study by CGS.

"It was a combination of long term and short term problems," said Stimpson. "The global competition in education intensified, and you have the U.S. government tightening student visa, making it look like a series of hoops to jump through."

Many research institutions felt the international student crunch in the labs and classrooms that had relied on international students as researchers or teaching assistants.

“Students today are very likely to have a colleague, a client or a business opportunity from another country after they finish school, so meeting people from other cultures while still in school enhances the educational experience even for local students,” said Michael Brzezinski, director of Purdue University’s international program.

To better assist international applicants, many schools introduced online application systems, making it easier for students out of the country to track their application status. Some assigned application counselors familiar with visa issues to help international students navigate through the process. Other schools wrote letters to U.S. consulates overseas to support their students’ visa applications.

"Our schools really became more proactive in reaching out to foreign students. They started doing the kind of things they used to do only for American students," said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of IIE. "They used to think international students were going to come anyway, but the situation has changed."

NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences sent Vice Dean Jim Matthews to an American university-sponsored recruiting fair in Shanghai last year, a first for the school. Matthews called the fair productive, and is going to another one this fall in Wuhan, a city in central China.

The U.S. government, realizing the unintended consequences of its student-visa policy, did its part to reduce the red tape.

Since the initial decline in the number of student visas issued, the State Department has added a staff of 570 in consulates worldwide and made processing student visas a priority. Students now generally get faster appointments than tourists and business travelers. The department also said it invested heavily in technology to speed up the clearance procedure required in applicants studying sensitive disciplines, which could have held up a visa for an extended period of time.

Last November, the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs organized a high-profile delegation of university presidents to visit Japan, Korea and China, all top countries in terms of sending students to the U.S.

"The trip was not for immediate recruitment purposes, but rather to spread the word that foreign students are still welcome in the United States," said Stephen Curtis, president of Community College of Philadelphia, who was on the trip.

As a locally focused community college, Community College of Philadelphia would have once been considered an unlikely candidate for international recruiting. The school today has 156 international students, although that's still less than 1 percent of its total student population.

“The student body of community colleges mostly grew up in the community, never left the region and probably don’t have many opportunities in study-abroad programs, so bringing international students in really gives them an opportunity to experience cultural differences,” said Judy Irwin of the American Association of Community Colleges.

International students pay out-of-state tuition to attend community colleges, which on average is double that of local students. In some community colleges in California, Texas and Massachusetts, foreign students now make up about 10 percent of student body.

In total, the more than half a million international students spent $13.5 billion in tuition and living expenses in 2005-2006, and about 70 percent of funding comes from sources outside the United States.

Still, the U.S. is expected to continue to face intensified global competition. Although international graduate school applications began to rise again in 2005, the total number for 2007 was still 27 percent lower than 2003, according to CGS.

"The competitive landscape has changed and we simply have to compete a lot harder," said Stewart of CGS. "Even (with) that, I think we won't be able to get back to where we were in 2002. The game for us now is more about quality than quantity."

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