updated 11/2/2003 3:58:26 PM ET 2003-11-02T20:58:26

A new study says the number of foreign students attending U.S. colleges increased by less than 1 percent in 2002-03 — the lowest growth rate in seven years. It’s just the latest piece of evidence that international students are shying away from the United States because of tough immigration rules.

THE INSTITUTE of International Education said tightened visa procedures enacted after the 2001 terrorist attacks, which have delayed the entry of many foreigners into the United States, contributed to the low growth rate.

The IIE said in its annual “Open Doors” report, to be released Monday, that foreign enrollment increased by only 0.6 percent last year. In each of the two previous academic years, foreign enrollment had increased by 6.4 percent.

POLICIES V. PERCEPTIONS

“It’s not just the policies themselves, but the understanding and perception of the policies that have really affected the numbers,” said Peggy Blumenthal, the IIE’s vice president of educational services.

“The word of mouth is out in certain countries about the difficulty getting a visa. And the perception is having as much of an impact as the delays.”

Foreign students started experiencing delays entering the country in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Washington in New York, as the federal government responded to calls for tighter domestic security. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers held a student visa.

U.S. schools want foreign students both for the revenue they bring in — the IIE said international students spend up to $12 billion annually between tuition and other expenses — and their contributions to academic research.

A continuing decline in foreign student enrollment “may damage our ability to attract the best and the brightest,” said Alice Gast, vice president of research and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In a separate online survey, the IIE said 46 percent of U.S. colleges reported declines in foreign enrollment in the current school year. There were 586,323 international students studying in the United States last year, said the IIE, which promotes closer educational relations between the United States and other nations.

The IIE’s findings are similar to those that the Association of International Educators, known as NAFSA, expects to reveal when it releases a survey of 2003-04 foreign student attendance later this week, said Victor Johnson, NAFSA’s associate executive director.

NAFSA conducted its report in conjunction with the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Johnson said that, unlike previous slowdowns in foreign enrollment, this one was triggered by a change in U.S. policy and not economic declines or political unrest.

‘GIVE UP TRYING’

He predicted that foreign enrollment may decline even more if Congress or the State Department fails to relax visa restrictions on students coming to America. Foreign students will “give up trying and go somewhere else,” Johnson said.

Educators here and abroad say it appears overseas schools are benefiting from the U.S. crackdown.

For instance, the number of Chinese students enrolling in British institutions rose by over 36 percent this year, according to the United Kingdom’s Universities and College Administration Services. Enrollment of students from India in British colleges increased by 16 percent.

Australia showed similar increases.

The International Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges, that country’s leading international education group, said the number of Indian students attending Australian colleges jumped by 31 percent while Chinese enrollment went up by 25 percent.

Students from Asia, the Middle East and Africa experienced the greatest delays obtaining U.S. visas last year. Once foreign students have settled in the United States, they are required by new homeland security measures to report changes in address, academic majors and other matters that might impact their visa status.

From his office in Sydney, IDP spokesman Peter Giesinger said it is “pretty reasonable” to draw a connection between Australia’s foreign student increases and post-Sept. 11 immigration laws.

Johnson agreed. “When you erect visa systems that make people think it’s too much of a hassle to study here and then they go somewhere else, I think it’s legitimate to assume the two have something to do with each other,” he said.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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