Administrators at American universities have one more thing to worry about.
A survey of 122 member institutions by the Council of Graduate Schools released this week revealed that the number of foreign graduate students enrolling at American universities is down 6 percent this year — the third straight decline after more than 10 years of growth. And that is a conservative estimate — numbers outside of the survey indicate an even larger decline in admissions and enrollment among foreign graduate students.
There are a number of different causes cited, among them: the state of the economy and the job/internship market for graduate students, safety concerns, fears of anti-foreigner sentiment in the US and anti-American sentiment in foreign countries.
It seems, however, that the largest cause of the decline in foreign graduate students at American universities is the plethora of hoops potential students must jump through in the visa application process.
The process of obtaining an F-1 student visa is long and arduous for foreign graduate students. Applicants must have proof of acceptance into an American university program, proof of residence in their home country, proof of financial support and the necessary processing fee.
These documents are not the source of the problem; in fact they are necessary in order to obtain a student visa in many countries.
The application process becomes “sticky” when a few extra steps are added in. Applicants must undergo an interview — sometimes more than one — with a consular officer and must provide proof that they do not intend to immigrate to the U.S., which is most convincingly shown through employment prospects or property ownership in a home country — both of which graduate students often do not possess.
Add the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee and the length of total processing time — often months including administrative processing and background checks — onto all of this and you’ve got a pretty strong deterrent to studying in the U.S.
Adding to the strength of the determent of the visa application procedure is the increasing competition for the minds and tuition of foreign graduate students.
Given the tedious procedure for obtaining a U.S. visa, Canada, the UK and Australia, among others, are competing aggressively — and convincingly — to win over frustrated foreign graduate students. In addition to the time and stress saved by forgoing the U.S. student visa process, there is often a monetary savings for students, as the cost of attending programs in these countries is frequently lower than in the U.S.
There are increasingly visible effects of the decline in foreign graduate students: entire programs are suffering lower enrollment because they just don’t have the domestic students to fill the empty seats, especially in engineering and science programs; some undergraduate programs are left scrambling to find suitable teaching assistants — jobs often held by foreign graduate students; some programs are even starting to see a gradual erosion of prestige as similar programs in other countries are now drawing many of the brightest students.
The government needs to make some significant changes to streamline the student visa application process and relax its regulations regarding students admitted into American university programs. Background checks, although necessary in some circumstances, need to be conducted faster, as do all steps of the application process. The burden of proof of non-intent to immigrate should also be eased, further speeding up the process.
Universities also need to make a conscious effort to counteract the negative feelings and experiences that come along with studying in the U.S. Some have already began to more actively recruit students from Indian and Asian universities. Others are offering to reimburse foreign students for the SEVIS fee. However, more large and prestigious universities need to take these and additional measures if they hope to remain competitive and maintain their prestige in the global realm.
As in most global arenas as of late, America’s foreign leadership is faltering in the academic arena. Universities are missing a chance to influence an entire generation of foreign leaders and hurting themselves in the process.
Laura Rego ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in marketing and management; she is the former advertising director of the Badger Herald.