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International students feel 9/11 pinch

Concerns over security after 9/11 dampened America’s hospitality for foreign students, leading some to fear that U.S. universities will lose valuable ground in this important educational market. By Nancy Liu.

On a recent visit to the United States, a prominent alumnus of Columbia University took the stage to thank the school, and the country, for the opportunity to study here. “Here in Columbia, a dream was born — and the knowledge and skills to make that dream possible was what Columbia gave me.”

The speaker that day was Mikhail Saakashvili, now the president of the former Soviet republic of Georgia and a key American ally in the war on terrorism. Saakashvili, now 36-years-old, cited the "common belief in freedom" he first experienced as a law student here as one reason his nation would continue to back America in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For many, words like that from a foreign leader are a prime example of the benefits the U.S. reaps from welcoming international students to its college campuses. In 2003, the American International Law Foundation estimated that 46 current and 165 former heads of government studied in America.

Yet concerns over security after 9/11 dampened America’s hospitality. The fact that the government approved student visas for two of the September 11th hijackers prompted a reevaluation of the student visa system.

With tighter security checks, students applying for travel documents are experiencing longer delays. A 2004 General Accounting Office survey found that it took an average of 67 days for security checks to be processed for science students and scholars. This has led many foreign students to give up in frustration and look for education opportunities elsewhere. It also has posed a dilemma for U.S. policymakers and educators: how to balance the need for more stringent screening against the broader goal of attracting the next generation of world leaders into America.

Declining influence

“The new visa restrictions and processes are acting as a significant impediment and deterrent to people coming here,” says Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

The Council of Graduate Schools reported last month that graduate school applications from international students declined 32 percent over the last year. Educators worry that the trend will diminish America's influence and prestige in the future.

“The opportunity to educate successive generations of world leaders in this country is a huge benefit,” says Johnson “They have networks here, they understand us. We don’t want to get into a situation where when the next generation’s crises occur there is nobody on the other side of the negotiating table who knows us.”

Long-term trend?

Whether the recent downturn in foreign applications is merely a short-term response to 9/11 remains unclear.

“I don’t want to say that it is the end of the world and I’m not going to say that the sky is falling,” says Sang Han, assistant director of federal relations at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, “but I think we should take steps to ensure that our competitive edge in terms of developing new ideas is not compromised.”

The U.S. government operates 450 advising centers in embassies and missions around the world to help foreign students interested in studying in the U.S. But the nature of the U.S. educational system, which unlike the rest of the world, is decentralized and often wholly private, makes coordinating any kind of outreach very difficult. The sheer size also poses challenges: America's 3000-odd universities and colleges compare with 39 in Australia and about 160 in the UK. 

“It seems unlikely that the U.S. could develop as tightly coordinated an approach as its much smaller competitors,” says Phillip Ives, who heads the State Department's educational outreach program. “Each individual university has its own interpretation of what it wants.”

A challenging market

Compared to its competitors overseas, U.S. faces unique challenges in tapping into the international education market.Government and universities in Australia and UK, for instance, actively encourage international recruitment. In 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair started an $8 million effort to attract foreign students to British universities. The result: Enrollment rose some 7 percent between 1999 and 2002.

Australia took legal steps designed at making its universities more attractive to foreign students.

“Australia has enjoyed remarkable growth in its international education for many years, with double digit annual growth six of the last nine years,” says Dr. Mitch Leventhal, U.S. Director of IDP Education Australia, a private organization working on behalf of Australian universities. Since 2000, he says, the growth rate is even faster -- over 40 percent. The U.S., by contrast, experienced only a 6.4 percent growth rate the same year.

Ives, from the U.S. State Department, is quick to point out that the latest U.S. figures reflect only a temporary dip and warns against overstating the problem.

Chris Simmons of the American Council of Education, a group that lobbies on behalf of universities, agrees. “It is making the U.S. look as if it does not want to attract international students. This is totally inaccurate,” says Simmons.

Simmons says the higher education community is strongly in favor new security measures, "but we must also put appropriate filters in place so students are not seen as the majority of the problem.”

Many American universities feel the quality of the education they offer reduces the need for expensive marketing campaigns abroad.

“Our department does not actively recruit international students,” says Teresa Moore, director of the Engineering Public Affairs office at the University of California, Berkeley. “We get more applicants in both undergrad and grad than we can accept so we just haven’t had the need to.”

Nonetheless, the recent dip in international admissions has brought the issue to the attention of American university educators. 

“The danger is that there has been a pattern for decades now of international students coming to the United States,” says Robert M. Gates, president of Texas A & M University and a past director of the Central Intelligence Agency. “If that pattern is broken for a period of several years, international students will get more familiar and accustomed to attending other universities in Europe, Australia, or elsewhere. The consequences, then, will be very long term indeed.”

Nancy Liu is an intern at MSNBC.com.