UT to compensate foreign students for fee

Government-mandated charge covers costs for tracking internationals

By: Laura Heinauer
Austin American-Statesman
Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The University of Texas will reimburse degree-seeking international students the $100 fee each paid to the government in order to study in the United States, President Larry Faulkner announced Wednesday.

Faulkner took the unusual step in hopes of encouraging more foreign students to enroll. Reimbursing the fee will cost the university $60,000 to $72,500 a year, according to the campus's international office.

The fee is used to support an electronic tracking system, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, used by the Department of Homeland Security.

Faulkner said the move was necessary to ease one of the many hurdles international students have come up against since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It's a re-enforcement of our welcome, which has been put into question by the post-9/11 bureaucratic circumstances they face," Faulkner said.

Among major research institutions, UT ranks third in international student enrollment. But in the past year, UT saw a 25 percent drop in graduate student applications from foreign students. And the overall international enrollment declined by 4.5 percent.

The fee, which prospective students must pay to obtain a visa, adds to the headaches already caused by America's strict visa application process.

Jerry Wilcox, director of the international office, said Faulkner has been concerned about attracting international students ever since meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in the spring.

When UT graduate John Maxwell Coetzee, who won the 2003 Noble Prize in literature, declined to come to a ceremony honoring his accomplishments because he didn't want to deal with traveling to the United States, Wilcox said Faulkner became even more worried that students would feel the same way.

Considering the large number of international students who are research and teaching assistants, Wilcox said, the university could ill afford to allow any further declines.

They hope reimbursing the fee will help, if only a little.

"We compete not only with other schools in this country but with schools in other countries, like the (United Kingdom), Canada and Australia, all of whom have very seamless, well-organized visa processes," he said. "If you don't roll out the welcome mat, let them know they're welcome, they're going to say 'Why mess with Texas? I'll just go somewhere else.' "

Ursula Oaks, a spokeswoman with the Association of International Educators, said universities across the country are seeing similar declines in foreign student applications and enrollment.

UT, however, is the first major university Oaks knows of that has offered to reimburse the fee.

"The fact that a school, especially a public one . . . is taking a step like this points to the significance of this issue," Oaks said. "It really shows the high level of concern that exists."

Because the fees went into effect Sept. 1, students who start school this spring will be affected most.

Nan Zheng, a graduate student in journalism, said that won't do much to improve the sour impression many students already have about the United States' visa process.

Zheng, who is from China, said she knows of many students who don't want to study in the United States because they don't want to deal with America's visa process. The fingerprinting policy also has upset students, she said. And then there's the fee.

"People will think it's unfair to make international students pay for a something that makes Americans safe," Zheng said.