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updated 8/15/2005 12:50:16 PM ET 2005-08-15T16:50:16

Ellen Wang calls herself one of the "lucky ones."

The native of Dalian, China, received a precious F-1 visa to study for an MBA at Graduate College of Union University in Schenectady, N.Y., in 2002 at a time when visas were harder than ever to secure for foreign students.

She has many Chinese friends who have not been so fortunate.

"A lot of students are rejected," she said. "They have to keep trying the visa process for many, many times. Many of them just give up. They finally decided to emigrate to Canada because they tried several times (for a U.S. visa) and all the applications were declined."

Wang, 35, has been doubly lucky. After earning a master's in business administration from Union in 2005, she began working full-time at Schenectady International in Niskayuna, N.Y. She has received a visa that will allow her to work in the United States for at least three years.

Administrators at Capital Region colleges say the Ellen Wangs are becoming rarer in what, for them, is the grave new world of competition for foreign graduate students.

Security concerns following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — at least six of the hijackers were in this country on student visas — caused the United States to curtail the issuing of visas, expel foreigners on expired student visas and institute a tracking system for students in the country with valid visas.

Foreign legions
As the student visa restrictions have started to ease, administrators say foreign graduate colleges are becoming better and more numerous, giving native students pursing advanced degrees more stay-at-home options. China alone plans to build 200 new comprehensive four-year colleges and between 20 and 30 major research universities over the rest of this decade, state University at Albany President Kermit Hall said.

Graduate schools in Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, Canada and other foreign countries are also becoming more aggressive in recruitment efforts for non-American students.

"The great research universities of the United States need to get the best brains they can into their labs and classrooms," Hall said. "At the same time, the loss of international students means that the United States is going to have to redouble its efforts, especially in science and mathematics, to build a homegrown talent pool. It's a much broader talent pool than the United States currently has."

China syndrome
Melvin Chudzik, dean of the school of management at the Graduate College of Union University, said the supply of Chinese students, in particular, has seemed to all but dry up.

"I know specifically for (students from) China, it is almost 10 to 1 — 10 we used to get, now we get only 1," he said.

Chudzik said the loss of foreign students in master's and doctoral science and technology programs poses a danger to the Albany area and its efforts to become Tech Valley, a hub for high-technology research, development and manufacturing.

"That is a significant technological resource for the Capital District," Chudzik said.

Capital Region colleges are not alone. The Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools said applications from international students to U.S. graduate schools were down 28 percent between 2003 and 2004, and fell another 5 percent for the school year beginning next month.

Another survey the group does charts what graduate school deans consider their most pressing issues. The 2001 survey, conducted before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, listed foreign student recruitment and visa concerns as the 10th-most pressing issue among deans. The 2005 survey listed recruitment and visa concerns of foreign students as the deans' second-most worrisome problem.

Good for business
Abraham Lackman, head of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, said there is also a bottom-line consideration for colleges: Foreign students have been good for them financially.

"These (graduate) programs are undersubscribed to begin with and the foreign students have been a major course of keeping the program going, as well as the students paying full boat," Lackman said.

Dawn Chen, director of international advancement at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, said college officials "were all appalled" by the drop in foreign applications.

But she said foreign enrollments at RPI will remain steady for the school year beginning in September.

"Our standards remain the same and we only take the best of the students that we can get," Chen said. "In fact, we see the quality of incoming students rise in terms of the English language and their other skills. ... I am still confident that the United States has the highest educational standards and that the best students still choose the U.S. as their top choice."

Quality control
UAlbany, Union University and RPI expect foreign enrollments to ultimately remain about the same this fall as in recent years.

Harder to quantify is how many foreign students who may have come to Capital Region colleges opted for schools in other countries or the relative quality of the students coming to the United States compared with 10 or 20 years ago, Hall said.

"American universities continue to be highly competitive internationally and they are sought after by some of the very best students in the world," Hall said. "I don't think we are at the point yet where we have lost all, but we are moving toward that point."

Wang, who was recently joined at her Niskayuna home by her husband and 9-year-old son, said MBAs have become a common offering in Chinese universities only recently. She said she would have more options if she was entering graduate school this fall than in 2002.

"I think it was a correct decision for myself," she said of studying at Union. "Here I can improve my language skills and learn the business operations and work with people from a different culture."

© 2007 The Business Review (Albany)

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