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Federal relations team John Engelen and Channing Riggs.

U federal relations director John Engelen is working to solve the "visa-processing quagmire" threatening research universities and other institutions. Assistant director Channing Riggs joined the federal relations team May 17.

Big chill

U's international enrollment drops in the wake of 9/11

By Gayla Marty

From Brief, May 19, 2004

International student applications for graduate study at the University of Minnesota for next fall are down for the second year. Last month, compared to one year ago, the number of applications received for fall 2004 was down 16 percent on the Twin Cities campus and 20 percent in Duluth.

Twin Cities campus Graduate School applications from citizens and permanent residents are up 3 percent, but not enough to offset the drop from abroad. Total applications are down 6 percent.

"We have one of the lower drops in international applications in the country for this year," says Graduate School admissions director Andrea Scott. "But we also dropped last year when other schools didn't."

As of April 15, international applications to the Graduate School were down in most fields: 10 percent in languages, literature, and the arts; 12 percent in the health sciences; 13 percent in the social sciences; and 24 percent fewer in engineering, physical sciences, and mathematical sciences. Only in the biological sciences and education and psychology are international applications for graduate study up--4 and 5 percent, respectively.

International enrollments by campus

In recent years, international student numbers have been more than 3,000 on the Twin Cities campus (roughly three-quarters in graduate and professional programs), about 240 at Duluth (about one-third in graduate programs), more than 30 at Crookston, and more than 20 at Morris.

In addition, the University has typically employed about 1,200 international researchers and faculty members across the four campuses.

International students and scholars come to the United States on F, J, and H non-immigrant visas.

Undergraduate numbers are not down in all cases. At Morris, for example, the number has remained small but stable. Crookston has managed to increase its number of international students through in-state tuition incentives and other efforts. Duluth has worked hard in recent years to increase its international enrollment. In a student body of 10,000 students, about 240 have been international, and about a third of those are graduate students.

"We were finally making progress, and now it's gone," says Karen Robbins, UMD international student adviser. "It's just sad."

The University of Minnesota is not alone. Nationwide, the number of applications to U.S. graduate programs from abroad is dropping, along with the number of international students admitted. Reports in February and March by groups including the Council of Graduate Schools, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities (AAU), NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges sounded the alarm.

They tracked sharp declines in international graduate student applications and smaller drops in the number from undergraduates. Drops for research universities with the largest international enrollments were the worst.

"If we start losing students and researchers to other countries, will they come back?" asks Craig Peterson of the U's International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS). "We have a long tradition of enrolling students from many countries abroad; what happens if that tradition is broken? Will we continue to lead the world in medicine, engineering, and other fields?"

Action: assessing the problem, advocating for change

The University is taking action to understand and solve problems.

Office of International Programs director Gene Allen is active with representatives from other universities, gathering and sharing information. International advisers are sharing information across the U and in professional organizations. President Bruininks recently wrote a letter to Representative Betty McCollum in preparation for a hearing on the issue.

The University also contributed to a proposal presented to the Bush administration by major higher education associations May 12, outlining six recommendations to improve the "U.S. visa-processing quagmire."

"We see three broad issues," says U federal relations director John Engelen. "There's the technology piece, which preceded 9/11 but got worse; there's the individual case work; and there are the bigger policy issues."

Technology--SEVIS, Visa Mantis, and more

Long waits to get visas at U.S. consulates and embassies abroad, new security procedures, and complicated regulations for international students in the United States all seem to be contributing to enrollment declines.

The "technology piece" includes SEVIS--the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System mandated in the 1990s but speeded up in October 2001 and implemented in 2003. The University of Minnesota agreed to take an enterprise role, representing large universities implementing the system.

"We are still doing a lot of testing, but we know where the bugs are," says ISSS director Kay Thomas. "Other schools bought the software, and they are still in major adjustment."

Under current requirements, students are more closely monitored than ever. An oversight such as failing to notify their universities of an address change can have far-reaching consequences.

Yet SEVIS has not made processes as seamless and reliable as promised. And international students may be assessed a fee to pay for the system.

Outside the United States, the Visa Mantis security system is a project of the Department of State in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is used to perform security checks on students and scholars in an estimated 200 fields on a federal "technology alert list"--disciplines that could threaten national security if knowledge is lost to another country. The General Accounting Office reports that Visa Mantis is responsible for many delays for international students and scholars applying for visas.

The current average wait for a U.S. visa is 67 days.

Entry and reentry into the United States is so fraught with uncertainty that departments consider international students a risk, especially those who will perform research and work as teaching assistants.

"We are seeing reluctance to offer TA-ships to students from some countries," says Thomas.

Individual case work increases

Specific instances of people who can't enter or reenter the United States are now so highly individualized, according to Engelen, that they have become a major drain on universities.

"It's not the case of being told 'no,'" he says. "It's the case of not being told 'yes.' Decisions can't be made."

In egregious cases, the federal relations staff works with Minnesota's congressional delegation to write letters and try to intervene. Representatives Sabo and McCollum have met with state department representatives at different times, such as when 11 international students in the Twin Cities campus chemistry department were delayed outside the country over winter break this year.

International advising has also taken a toll. Peterson says there's a lot more advising to do than before, more to worry about, and more to talk through during each student appointment in the same amount of time.

"Our training manual has gone from one to three inches thick," says ISSS director Kay Thomas.

"Staff training is much harder now," says Thomas. "The consequence of error is greater, and there's fatigue. One of my concerns is that all this can make staff members more cynical, especially at a big school where you don't get a chance to know everyone by name."

Far-reaching policy issues

The prospect of universities, and the United States as a whole, losing out on global talent in key fields is very real to the national research community.

The statement proposing remedies to the Bush Administration May 12 was put forward by more than 20 science, higher-education, and engineering groups representing an estimated 95 percent of the U.S. research community.

"With enrollments declining, it's clear that many of the best and brightest students abroad no longer believe the United States is the destination of choice," said AAU president Nils Hasselmo. Science and security are both necessary and possible, said another group's spokesperson.

"Science and security are not an 'either-or' proposition. We must and can have both. If we don't take action now to improve the U.S. visa system, growing fears among researchers from other countries will do irreparable harm to scientific progress as well as U.S. competitiveness," says Albert H. Teich, director of science and public policy for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

These days, says Thomas, international students have other options. Australia, the United Kingdom, and other countries are positioning themselves to attract international students who would otherwise apply to study in the United States. Many countries have made progress in building their own higher education infrastucture.

"Higher education in China has mushroomed, so people are staying home," Thomas says.

Six recommendations for fixing the problems

The research community recommended six changes to alleviate many of the problems contributing to declining enrollments:

For more information about the six proposals

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Monica Amarelo

Association of American Universities (AAU)
Barry Toiv

The contributing organizations also called for an increase of funding and staff for all U.S. agencies involved in handling visa applications.

"These are solvable problems," Engelen says. "Things have got to change."

References "Leading science, higher-education, and engineering groups urge six improvements to U.S. visa-processing quagmire," Association of American Universities (AAU), May 12, 2004. For more information, see

"New survey confirms sharp drop in applications to U.S. colleges from foreign graduate students," by Michael Arnone, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 2004. The article is available on the Web by subscription only at http://

Open Doors, the annual report on international enrollments in the United States, Institute of International Education, New York. For more information, see

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