Foreign-Student Enrollment Stagnates

New security measures lead to declines among Muslim countries

The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated November 7, 2003

A Saudi Arabian student at the University of Colorado at Denver counts down the days until January, when he will earn his master's degree in architecture and can take his wife and 1-year-old son home.

He had planned to stay in the United States to earn his doctorate, but an unsettling experience with immigration officials this summer changed his mind. Upon returning from vacation in Saudi Arabia, he checked with the university to see if he needed to notify the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, that he had returned. The university employee he spoke with was not familiar with new federal security policies, and mistakenly told him he did not. After discovering the error several weeks later, the student immediately went to the nearest immigration office.

There, he says, officials grilled him about why he was registering late and, at one point, even threatened him with jail. Ultimately, he was allowed to register, but the experience left him deeply shaken. "I was about to cry," says the student, who requested anonymity out of fear for his family's safety.

So next year, instead of continuing his studies in Colorado, he will return to Saudi Arabia, where he will spend a year as a teaching assistant at King Faisal University. Then he will pursue his Ph.D. in architecture in Britain. "I don't want any trouble for myself, my family," he says. "I just want to study and go back home."

The story of one student's ambivalence about staying in the United States is reflected in the nearly stagnant number of foreign students who enrolled at colleges in this country in the 2002-3 academic year compared with the previous year. The number of foreign students studying here grew less than 1 percent, to 586,323, following a five-year average annual growth rate of 5 percent, according to a study by the Institute of International Education.

The slight jump is largely due to significant increases in students from countries such as China, India, and South Korea, and masks a serious decline in the number of students from many Muslim countries. Kuwait sent 25 percent fewer students to the United States in the fall of 2002 than it had the previous year. The United Arab Emirates sent 16 percent fewer students.

In Saudi Arabia, which saw its numbers drop by 25 percent last year, officials say they have no choice, in light of changes to the U.S. visa process, but to steer university students away from the United States.

"We are looking almost everywhere in an effort to provide an alternative to the U.S. for our students wanting to study abroad, especially Canada, Australia, and New Zealand," says Abdul Aziz al-Husseinie, the acting director of scholarship at the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education. "We still think the U.S. is the best place for Saudi students, but we've had to compensate for the visa delays."

Along with the institute's comprehensive 2002-3 survey, the group also conducted a more informal poll this fall that indicated that foreign-student enrollment was still suffering from the effects of post-September 11 security measures. Many of the nearly 300 educators who responded reported significant decreases in new students from Muslim countries such as Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Directors of international-student offices say it is no coincidence that the 25 countries selected by the U.S. government for special scrutiny because of their perceived ties to terrorist groups are sending far fewer students here than they did two years ago. Male students between the ages of 16 and 45 from these countries must go through special registration procedures upon arrival in the United States, including fingerprinting, which have led many of them to complain that they are being treated like criminals. The new security procedures went into effect last fall, although stricter visa procedures have been in effect since late 2001.

Garrison K. Courtney, a spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in the Department of Homeland Security, says that the U.S. government does not select students for special registration just because they happen to be Muslim. "It's that Al Qaeda is operating there or some other terrorist organizations in the country are posing a threat to the U.S.," he says.

Choosing to avoid what has become an often arduous process, a growing number of students have enrolled at universities in other English-speaking countries. Australia, Britain, and Canada have also been recruiting foreign students more heavily and have not significantly changed their visa requirements.

"All the signs are that things look to be going from bad to worse," says Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators.

"We are shooting ourselves in the foot if legitimate students, who want to pursue higher education in the United States, can't get in or find it too much of a hassle to try," he adds. "Dramatic declines in enrollments from the Middle East are particularly troubling; no U.S. interest is served by severing our exchange relationship with this vital part of the world."

Mix of Reasons

Other observers of international education are more optimistic. "The United States is still the number one destination in the world, the place everyone talks about when they think of studying abroad," says Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.

He believes the latest enrollment figures reflect only a temporary dip. "This may be the smallest increase we're going to see" in the next few years, he says. "I do expect that we're going to have really substantial growth for the rest of the decade because so many other countries are running out of seats."

Mr. Goodman says that students may also be staying away from the United States because of the slumping global economy, leaving them unable to afford rapidly increasing American tuitions. And while he acknowledges that fear of harassment has kept some students away, he warns against overstating the problem. The slowdown in enrollment growth, he says, is due to a mix of reasons, and "it's really important to look at each country separately."

According to the institute's fall survey, nearly 60 percent of the respondents blame the visa delays and the decline in enrollments on the post-September 11 changes in the visa-application process. About 21 percent say financial difficulties are primarily to blame for the enrollment decline. Roughly 9 percent say the main reason for the decline is that students are attracted to higher education in other countries, mostly in Australia, Britain, and Canada.

Ricky Widjaja, a 23-year-old Indonesian national who graduated this month with a bachelor's degree in business from Australia's Monash University, chose to study in Australia instead of the United States largely for financial reasons. "The Asian economic crisis had a big effect on me and many of my friends back in Jakarta," he explains, referring to the strength of the dollar compared with Asian currencies over the past few years.

The stringent visa regulations for Indonesians wishing to enter the United States didn't thrill him either. "The U.S. Embassy is very strict these days, even when it comes to tourist visas, let alone visas to study, and it doesn't seem to make much difference which religion you happen to be," says Mr. Widjaja, a member of his country's 20-million-strong Christian community.

Kevin Tan, a 20-year-old Malaysian student, also looked at costs when choosing Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, over the University of Wisconsin at Madison, his preferred destination. By Mr. Tan's calculations, he would have had to spend around $50,000 annually to live in the United States, about one-and-a-half times what he currently pays studying computer science in New Zealand. "The difference seemed kind of huge," he says. "I'm still envious of my friends who did manage to go to America, but at the same time I'm very pleased not to share their financial burden."

Colleges in the United States have their own financial concerns. As the U.S. economy continues to falter, university administrators tend to slash programs such as international education and recruitment, which college officials noted in the survey, and which may, in turn, prompt potential foreign students to look elsewhere.

'Uncomfortable Situations'

Universities, meanwhile, are trying to sort out the effects of enrollment declines on their campuses. George Mason University enrolled 1,157 foreign students this fall compared with 1,203 last fall. The institution also saw a drop in the number of new foreign students, with 214 this year down from 243 last year.

Julia M. Findlay, director of international programs and services, says that a growth in the number of students from South Korea and Japan has helped make up for a decline in the number of Middle Eastern students. Within the latter group, she says, she was particularly struck by a drop in the number of Saudi Arabian students enrolled in the university's nursing program. Although the program has strong ties to hospitals in Saudi Arabia, only 56 students enrolled this fall, compared with 93 last year.

Ms. Findlay attributes the decline in the number of Middle Eastern students to the special registration process. Males from the 25 countries selected for scrutiny must report back to immigration officials within 30 to 40 days of their arrival in this country and must check in with them when they leave.

Some students, she says, have not been able to return to George Mason solely because they did not sign out with immigration officials when they left, so upon their return to the United States, they were detained for questioning and then refused entry. "Most of these students have been undergraduates ... attempting to do the right thing, or they simply forget, being 18-year-olds," says Ms. Findlay.

Other changes in the immigration process have also led to visa delays and denials. A new face-to-face interview requirement established this summer by the State Department requires U.S. embassies and consulates to substantially increase the percentage of applicants who must complete in-person interviews before being issued a visa. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, a computerized tracking system of foreign students and scholars known as Sevis, has caused additional headaches. Embassy officials use Sevis data when making decisions during visa interviews, and college officials had reported late this summer that the State Department experienced delays in uploading Sevis information into its database, which, in turn, led to visa delays.

Thabet al-Qaissieh coped with his visa delay last year by studying at John Cabot University, a nonprofit American institution in Italy. Mr. al-Qaissieh, a 21-year-old sophomore, wanted to be back at Tidewater Community College, in Virginia, where he had studied from August 2001 until May 2002. He went back home to the United Arab Emirates for summer break, however, and could not get a new visa when classes restarted.

When Mr. al-Qaissieh, who had just recently received citizenship in the emirates, applied for a new student visa, the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi kept him in limbo for two months before notifying him in August 2002 that he would need to wait another three to six months just for an appointment, he says. So he gave up and looked for a college outside the United States where he could still get an education from an accredited American institution.

Mr. al-Qaissieh, who had lived in the United States for two years as a child, says he was initially disappointed. "It was hard for me to accept," he says. "I liked living in the U.S. It's a country that has a lot to offer." But "the reaction the U.S. government has toward Arab students after September 11 was extreme," he says, adding that he is happier studying in Italy.

The State Department is also giving greater scrutiny to visa applicants who plan to study fields listed on its technology alert list, which includes nuclear technology and biomedical engineering, among others.

Ellen A. Dussourd, director of international student and scholar services at the State University of New York at Buffalo, believes this extra attention explains why the institution has seen its graduate-student enrollment for the fall semester drop to 672 new students this year from 715 new students last year.

Looking Elsewhere

Irving Lerch, director of international affairs at the American Physical Society, says that current visa difficulties have put a damper on some graduate programs and do not bode well for scientific enterprises in this country, especially "when you realize that 35 percent of all students in the sciences -- math, technology, and engineering -- are foreign."

He notes that a colleague of his from a German university says that the number of first-rate Chinese students applying there had increased by a factor of three this past year. "The best students may be beginning to decide they don't want the hassle of trying to come to the U.S.," he says.

Purdue University has begun filling more of its research assistantships with American students, says Michael A. Brzezinski, director of international students and scholars there. He and his colleagues have been trying to combat the visa delays by sending out immigration documents earlier, and having students apply for visas sooner, but some departments have grown weary of having foreign graduate assistants arrive late.

Although they have yet to tally the numbers, officials at the Australian Embassy in Washington and the British Council, an organization that promotes British universities around the world, say they have seen increases in international students enrolled in their respective countries.

Australian officials say that the number of students from countries bordering the Persian Gulf and studying in Australia has increased from slightly more than 100 in 1998 to more than 1,000 in 2003.

Anecdotal reports also suggest that British universities have not seen a drop-off in Middle Eastern students, says Neil Kemp, director of education for the British Council. "We've been growing the overall non-European students between 12 and 15 percent per annum," he says. "Obviously China has a big influence on that, but the number of Middle Eastern students has been going up over the last two or three years." Mr. Kemp says that Britain has aggressively recruited foreign students and created programs that link Muslim students with Islamic societies there to make them feel welcome.

The Saudi Arabian architecture student hopes he will feel welcome in Britain. Although he thinks he would receive a better education in the United States, his family's safety comes first. "I'm not a criminal," he says. "I don't want to go through this experience again."

David Cohen and Daniel del Castillo contributed to this article.