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Wanted: Foreign Students

The good news: Foreign enrollments at American universities are on the rise. The bad news: Competition for international students is fiercer than ever.
University Business, Aug 2007

ON AN EARLY MORNING in late May, nearly two dozen students looking to register for Boston University's summer term are already camped out in a waiting room. One student from Korea sports a Red Sox cap. A young woman wears a hajib, the traditional Islamic headscarf. Dozens of others, dressed in blue jeans or shorts, form a line before a "welcome" desk that's stacked with forms.

A world map filled with stickpins extends across one wall, along with the question, "Where in the world are you from?" A sign-up sheet nearby advertises an orientation scavenger hunt, followed by a detailed and mostly monosyllabic explanation of what a scavenger hunt is.

"Do you have your passport and I-20 with you?" asks a student receptionist to the next person in line, as she shuffles a pile of yellow SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) forms that will soon be headed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "Please have your F1 visa and I-94 card ready for copying," she reminds everyone within earshot.

These are some of BU's almost 5,600 international undergraduate and graduate students from 135 countries, and this morning they're occupying the school's Center for English Language and Orientation Programs (CELOP) space, where many will return over the next few weeks for intensive English courses.

Like many U.S. colleges and universities, BU has been trying to maintain its population of foreign students in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The school has done well in comparison. Since 2002, BU's foreign student population has remained largely unchanged and ranks among the top 10 in the United States.

The annual Open Doors survey of 2,700 American higher education institutions by the Institute of International Education in Washington, D.C., tells a different story. IIE reports that in 2003-2004, foreign enrollment nationwide dropped by 2.4 percent and by another 1.3 percent the following year before leveling off in 2005-2006 (the most recent year for which IIE has national data) to almost 565,000, a total decline of almost 22,000.

What's more, before the events of 9/11 raised the requirements for F1 visas and the anxieties of foreign students considering a U.S. education, American schools could count on at least a 5 percent annual increase. "We had experienced nonstop growth," recalls Bruce Rindler, associate director of Boston University's CELOP. "We were doing very little marketing and were seeing more and more students coming to us."

And while many schools say they are again building their foreign enrollments-a statement backed up by the Open Doors report, which showed an 8 percent increase in new students for 2005-2006-they are facing greater challenges than ever before in attracting students. In another recent IIE study of 1,000 member institutions of higher ed, more than half indicated they have increased their recruitment efforts at a time when universities in Europe, China, and a host of English-speaking countries are doing the same.

Rindler says his office has had to deal with international crises before, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the SARS scare in the late-1990s, but the 9/11 attacks had a much larger impact. "We have quite a cohort from the Middle East," he points out. "When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 1991, I remember thinking, 'My God, nobody's going to come here.' Everybody came. But in 2001, our Middle Eastern population from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates dried up overnight." Some students who did come over endured more than a long flight. "There were all kinds of stories," Rindler continues, "particularly of people who went home for vacation and couldn't get back, or people here who suffered through the FBI knocking on their doors. A couple of them came to me saying, 'I've been interviewed. Should I hire a lawyer?' "

Other schools, large and small, have paid a price in shrinking numbers. Graduate school applications to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fell 30 percent in the years after 9/11. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh saw its undergraduate and graduate foreign student population shrink from a combined 500 to 450. At West Virginia University, the numbers dropped from 1,412 to 1,264, and at the University of South Carolina, enrollment fell from almost 1,300 to under 1,000.

There were ... people here who suffered through the FBI knocking on their doors. A couple of them  came to me saying, "I've been interviewed. Should I hire a lawyer?"
-Bruce Rindler, Boston University

Last fall, the University of Nebraska- Lincoln counted 1,279 foreign students, compared with a peak of 1,517 in 2002. "We heard from our admissions office that the number of applications was going down, and that the number of visa denials and non decisions had increased," says Peter Levitov, associate dean of international affairs.

Those "non-decisions" further extended a student visa process that had lengthened from less than a week to months and sometimes up to a year and now included a mandatory interview at a U.S. consulate in the prospective student's native country, as well as a lengthy search of terrorism "watch lists." By the time many foreign students were cleared, Levitov adds, they had missed the semester for which they had enrolled.

"The first year [after 9/11] was very difficult," says Columbia University's Associate Provost Rick Tudisco, who estimates that between 50 and 75 of his school's 1,400 new foreign students experienced significant delays. "The first year we were tracking problems at foreign consulates and at the ports of entry into the Untied States. The State Department was totally overwhelmed by the slew of requirements and procedures."

The decline in foreign students has exacted a hefty price on several fronts. These students and their families contribute more than $13 billion a year to the American economy, much of it in the form of tuition. "What we've lost most are the undergraduates, and what most institutions are really looking for are full-paying international students, observes Madeleine Green, vice president for international initiatives at the American Council on Education.

Since two-thirds of the international students at U of Nebraska-Lincoln are in the graduate school, their reduction has left research assistantships unfilled and some course sections uncovered. "If we lose graduate students, we're losing a lot of talent," points out IIE president Allan Goodman. "The quality of research is going to suffer. And who is going to teach our premed courses?"

There's also the less tangible cost of a student body that's not as diverse, Goodman continues. "If American students don't know how others from Brazil, Chile, or China think differently, they won't understand how the world sees us or how to become citizens of the world themselves."

The road to recovery has been paved with lessons learned along the way, starting with changes to the State Department's visa process. "It's improved enormously," says Columbia's Tudisco. "They needed to become familiar with the regulations themselves and to streamline the process of identity and security checks, and they needed to do all this both stateside and overseas. Now that we're out on the other side, it's better than it was. But the transition was rocky. They were building the plane as they were taking off ."

The department has added personnel to deal with F1 visa applications, and students now can move ahead of other visa seekers. Those non-decisions have all but disappeared. Still, cautions ACE's Green, there is "a lot of work to do on the visa process. There's a balance between openness and security. Does a two-minute interview with a consular official really show whether you're a security risk?"

IHEs have also had to do their share in attracting and keeping foreign students. "You have to make sure your campus is perceived as a safe place for internationals of all kinds," says Rindler, who has received e-mails from prospective students asking about just that.

"The personal touch is very important in an age of electronic communications," adds Levitov. "It's important to respond to student inquiries promptly and graciously. Meet them at the airport. Get them the address of the student union for their home country. Make the environment as welcoming as possible."

Dixon Johnson, executive director of international services at the University of Southern California, which leads American schools with more than 7,000 foreign students (followed by Columbia, Purdue, New York University, and The University of Texas-Austin), says cultivating international business means more than milking a cash cow.

"A university has to have a clear idea of why it wants international students," he emphasizes. "You want them to pay and succeed academically, but they have exceptional needs," from extra assistance with housing to help navigating legal requirements. "International students also expect to interact with American students and to have an 'American' experience. That does not happen automatically."

With the American experience in mind, USC's Office of International Services offers an introduction to the Los Angeles area as well as panel discussions in which foreign students can introduce themselves and their countries to their classmates. Visiting students can also get Thanks giving placements with U.S. families, and the spouses of foreign students can take English courses.

Efforts to make international students comfortable can start in their home countries. Last year, USC launched a virtual orientation center in Hong Kong, where current and incoming students meet in June via videoconference with academic advisers and the vice president for student affairs, who make presentations and take student questions. Students are then able to register for fall courses, rather than waiting for their return to campus in August, at which time many prime spots are filled.

The biggest lesson that American schools have absorbed in recent years is that they can no longer take their foreign business for granted.

"It's really important to abandon the 'We built it, and you'll come' mentality," warns IIE's Goodman. Even elite universities are realizing that they are facing a changed playing field. "We compete with the world for the best students," admits Columbia's Tudisco. "There are a limited number."

Although foreign student populations have stabilized at American institutions, these experts agree, they are facing much stiffer competition-ignited by 9/11 and sustained by growing globalization-from universities in other countries, starting with those where English is the primary language. According to the ACE, foreign enrollments grew by 29 percent in the United Kingdom and by 42 percent in Australia between 1999 and 2005.

'There's a balance between openness and security. Does a two-minute interview with a  consular official really show whether you're a security risk?'
-Madeleine Green, American Council on Education

"We did lose students to Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, all countries perceived to be more friendly to internationals" and that began marketing themselves more aggressively, notes BU's Rindler. These nations also allow students and their spouses to work after graduation, in order to remain longer. Goodman adds that Canada and Scotland even issue green cards to students who complete doctoral degrees in math or science.

European universities have emerged as formidable competitors, aided by the Bologna accords signed in 1999, through which 42 countries have agreed to create more common ground in higher education and standardize degree requirements. "It's a very powerful force," says ACE's Green. "It will greatly improve movement between European countries, and it will be a magnet for keeping Europeans in Europe. More and more programs are being offered in English, so you don't have to learn Dutch to do your PhD. And as a foreign student, you can go for free or for low tuition in places like France and Germany."

The competition to U.S. schools extends even farther a field. "The largest sending country in 2001-2002 was China, but now they're actively discouraging students from studying abroad," says Goodman, the better to populate and strengthen more than 100 universities expanding in their own country.

In January 2006, the State Department hosted a Summit on International Education for 120 college presidents, with the aim of reversing the losses and negative perceptions of the past five years. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings promised faster visa processing and keener recruiting efforts overseas.

A few months later, Spellings led a dozen college and university presidents on a goodwill junket to Korea, China, and Japan. Another delegation visited India this past March. Margaret Lee, president of Oakton Community College outside of Chicago, made the last trip. "I see it as the extension of the hand of American higher education in welcome," Lee says.

The University of Southern California is not sitting on its laurels as the leading destination for international students. Officials have increased their own recruiting in India. Besides contacting USC alumni at Indian universities, recruiters traveled to the subcontinent to meet with prospective students. These efforts have yielded measurable results. Between 2005 and 2006, Johnson reports, Indian enrollment rose from 1,084 to 1,311.

Last summer, several graduate schools from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte also visited India and made six stops in Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

'If American students don't know how others from Brazil, Chile, or China think differently, they won't understand how the world sees us or how to become citizens of the world themselves.'
-Allan Goodman, Institute of International Education

Most recruitment initiatives by American IHEs have focused on China, South Korea, Japan, and India, which are the main wellsprings of foreign students and accounted for 42 percent of the IIE census for 2005- 2006. But while many universities rely on students from Asian countries, Johnson suggests that they broaden their horizons and adjust accordingly. "Not all countries are created equal," he says. "If you really want to attract students from around the world, be prepared to offer more scholarships."

Green says that schools would do well to join forces in their recruiting efforts. She points to consortia in 10 states, from Hawaii and California to Indiana and Alabama, which share information and promotional efforts.

It's worth the effort, says Goodman. Considering some predictions that the number of international students will more than double, to 7-plus million a year by 2025, he argues that the United States is uniquely positioned to increase its market share. "With 4,000 accredited universities, we have an enormous capacity. Other competing countries can't absorb the same numbers, and many of our schools are better than what's available in other countries."

Community colleges, too, have stepped up recruiting efforts after enrollments dropped by more than 10 percent post-9/11. In recent years, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has organized informational fairs at multiple locations in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. This past year, the State Department made $3 million available for students in developing countries to attend community college.

According to Judy Irwin, AACC's director of international services, two-year institutions have benefited from the tried and true marketing approach that they are a good first stop on the road through higher education, and at a lower tuition. "Foreign students will get the experience of being in small classes while getting the chance to improve their linguistic abilities," she says. "Imagine how difficult it is for a student coming to the U.S. for an engineering degree and sitting in a class of 750 students at a university."

Another practical appeal, Irwin notes, is that while visiting students can work in the United States for one year after receiving a bachelor's degree or higher, they can be employed for a year after gaining their associate degree as well. "It's a very attractive option for students," she says.

Besides participating in the overseas recruitment fairs, Harrisburg Area Community College (Pa.) added an international admissions recruiter and an international student coordinator in 2003. Within a year, the school had recorded a 27 percent jump in foreign enrollment.

At Oakton Community College (Ill.), which does not recruit abroad, Margaret Lee has been looking to the large Korean and Japanese population in her own backyard. While Oakton counts almost 250 students with F1 visas, it is doing a brisker business with families that have A1 and A2 visas. Lee observes, "Some of our best students are from parents who have come here to work."

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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