Slamming the Door of Higher Ed

Since 9/11, foreign enrollment rates at Bay Area colleges have declined dramatically because of both new restrictions and changing attitudes.

As the executive director of international programs for Cal State Hayward, Ray Wallace works with universities and students from all over the world, convincing them that the United States — and CSUH — are the places to get a quality education. America has long been one of the most popular spots for foreign students. But these days, Wallace is finding it a harder sell. “I was in Brazil recently to recruit,” he says. “The people we work with there tell their students, don’t bother with the United States.”

The story of two Brazilian students Wallace recruited this year helps explain why. He offered the two young women scholarships to study English for three months, but immigration officials had a different idea. The students say they took a ten-hour bus ride to the American embassy and spent the equivalent of about $250 each — several weeks’ salary — to apply for their three-month visas. But when they arrived at their appointments — a new requirement of the post-9/11 world — they say immigration officials promptly denied their applications, without even reviewing all the documents they had brought. “The lady who attended me asked me two questions: When I had finished my English course, and how much was my payment,” wrote one of the students, 22-year-old Daiane Busarello, in an e-mail interview. “After I answered these questions, she stamped my passport and told me she couldn’t give me the visa.” Busarello said the immigration staffer gave her a paper with an “X” marked next to one of a list of possible reasons for visa denial — that she didn’t have strong reasons to return to Brazil after her studies. “But I had,” she wrote.

Educators say such stories are responsible, at least in part, for the latest hit to US higher education: falling international student enrollment. The Institute of International Education reports that the number of foreign students at US colleges dropped by 2.4 percent last year — the first drop after a three-decade boom — and indications are that the slide is continuing this year. At East Bay colleges, the trend has been sharper than the national average. The number of foreign graduate students at UC Berkeley, now 1,800, dropped by 4 percent both this year and last year, the first decline since a 1 percent drop in 1995. Cal State Hayward saw a 12 percent drop last year and another 13 percent this year, to 642 international students. The Peralta Community Colleges are projecting a 10 percent drop this year, and Diablo Valley College officials said DVC has also experienced a leveling off or decline in international students after several years of growth, though exact numbers were not available.

The decline is even more noticeable when isolated to the ranks of the newly enrolled. Since 2001, the number of new foreign grad students enrolling at Cal has gone down by more than a third, meaning the school can expect the number of international students to continue to slump as older students graduate, unless new enrollments shoot back up.

While some of the decline could be explained by students who are denied visas, a more important factor seems to be a drop in the number of international students applying in the first place. The number of foreign students who applied to grad school at Cal dropped by 2,336 — 22 percent — this year. Meanwhile, more foreigners are applying to and attending universities in other English-speaking countries. Which poses the question: Is the United States losing its cachet with international students?

For years, the elite in countries from Saudi Arabia to China have sent their children to be educated in America. This “brain drain” to the United States symbolized this country’s cultural and economic ascendancy. It also provided an avenue for political influence, a means to inject American values directly into other countries’ centers of power by shaping their emerging leaders. Educating foreign students creates “soft power” that lets the United States influence other nations, says Ivor Emmanuel, director of Cal’s Services for International Students and Scholars. “It’s much easier than using hard power, military might, to influence change overseas,” he says.

Haitao Liu, a Cal chemistry grad student from China, says such connections are key in his country. “The US is not very popular in China” right now, says Liu, whose research was interrupted when he waited five weeks for a visa to return to school after going home for a family emergency last spring. “I think the more we visit each other and learn each other’s culture, the more we have a chance to have a friendlier, brighter future.”

International students, who pay higher tuition than locals and don’t get government funding or loans, also bring cash that flows into the local economy. The Association of International Educators estimates that foreign students brought $1.8 billion to California’s economy in 2003-04, of which $955.2 million was tuition and fees paid directly to colleges either by the students or by research grants. According to the association, $40.9 million of that went to Cal, $12.3 million to Cal State Hayward, $3.4 million to DVC and $618,900 to the Peralta colleges. The prior year, before foreign enrollment began to really slide, all but the Peralta schools had raised more money, according to the estimates. The association’s yearly reports show Cal losing $4.9 million in foreign student fees from 2002 to 2003 — though much of this was probably paid by research grants rather than by students — with Hayward losing $205,600, and DVC losing $120,500. Cal State Hayward projects another loss of $870,000 in fees from international students this year. None of these numbers takes into account how much international students would have brought into the schools if their numbers had kept growing at pre-2001 rates.

But college officials say what they’re really worried about is the loss of less tangible contributions. At community colleges, that means the international flavor and access to multiple cultures that these students bring to a campus. “The purpose of my international program is to help our local community to be exposed to global issues and have a global experience,” says Jacob Ng, who heads the Peralta district’s international program. “So many of our students haven’t been out of the country.” At Cal, it means the research of grad students who help the school keep its place among the top universities of the world. International students, and those who remain as workers for a time after they graduate, are widely recognized as helping to advance American science, technology, and other fields. In 1999, for example, Cal professor AnnaLee Saxenian found that 24 percent of high-tech companies in Silicon Valley were probably founded by foreign workers from India and China alone. Those companies employed 58,282 workers and represented their own $16.8 billion Bay Area industry. Still, students in science and technology come under increased scrutiny when they apply for visas, because the US government considers those to be sensitive subjects, particularly since 9/11.

Immigration critics argue that the loss of international students is a good thing for Bay Area colleges. “I don’t think that’s bad news at all,” says Yeh Ling-Ling, executive director of the Oakland-based Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, of the drop in foreign students. “American-born students do not have the ability to go to college in terms of space and money. American colleges’ primary responsibility is to educate Americans.”

Educators blame a variety of factors for the shrinking international student population, including, at UC Berkeley, skyrocketing tuition. All, however, name the increased difficulty of getting a student visa since September 11 as one of the major reasons. “I think all of the post-9/11 regulatory changes collectively have created the perception of an unwelcoming environment for international students and scholars,” says Cal’s Ivor Emmanuel. After it emerged that some of the 9/11 hijackers apparently had entered the United States on student visas, the government instituted a number of new visa fees and procedures and has enforced existing regulations more strictly. In some cases, like that of Daiane Busarello, that means students are denied entrance. Many more are allowed into the country, but only after waits and delays that have stretched up to a year or more for some. In a recent Cal survey, 59 percent of foreign students and faculty surveyed said visa problems or delays had forced them to alter travel plans and more than a third said they had to change their research plans.

Considering that students often have just a few months between their acceptance into college and their start date, such delays mean they must make plans — buy plane tickets, quit jobs, give up apartments — before they hear whether they got a visa. If they have to wait so long that they miss the start of school, like one current Cal student from Lebanon who asked that his name not be used, they must reverse all those plans. That can be an expensive and disappointing prospect.

The story of Alexandra Feist, a 27-year-old German and former au pair for a Concord family, illustrates the frustrations facing some foreign students trying to come to the East Bay. Feist spent hundreds of euros to apply for a student visa to study special education at Diablo Valley College. She waited for hours, sometimes in the rain, for three separate appointments at the US Embassy in Berlin. But when she finally made it in front of immigration workers, she says they spent just a few minutes glancing over her materials before denying her application. Feist had brought letters from family and a potential employer in Germany to prove that she did not plan to stay in the United States after school — a common reason for student visa denials — but she says the immigration workers appeared to have trouble reading the documents, which were in German. “Five minutes. That’s all I got, and no chance to explain anything,” said Feist during a short visit back to Concord this fall.

Schools that want to accept foreign students also face hurdles. The Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland is an after-school music program whose students have performed with the San Francisco Symphony and Opera among others. The academy wanted to accept a Polish boy to a new day school it opened this fall, but first needed approval from immigration officials to enroll foreign students. The immigration agency refused because the day school was new, according to a copy of a letter from the agency provided by the academy.

Getting into the country isn’t the only obstacle, either, as former Cal chemistry grad student Xuesong Li found out. When Li went home to China last year to get married, he says he had to wait eight months for a security check before he could reenter the United States. By the time he was cleared to come back, Li’s adviser had dropped him from his research project and he was not able to return to get his degree.

As word has gotten out about the difficulty and uncertainty involved in getting US student visas, international students are increasingly heading elsewhere. “I think more and more people are considering going somewhere else, including Canada or Britain,” said Liu, the current Cal chemistry student. The numbers bear this out: At Cambridge University in Britain, for example, international students have increased by 55 percent since 2001. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, the number has risen 42 percent. And a recent New York Times article reported that many Asian students are now looking to their regional superpower, China, as an alternative to America.

Yeh, the immigration critic, argues that international students are staying away from the United States because of its faltering economy, not visa issues. “People abroad realize that America is in steady and rapid decline,” she says. If, however, visa worries are part of the reason — as some students have indicated — Yeh says any concerns about losing foreign students are negligible compared to the need to enforce tight borders. “Tighter control is not going to stop, necessarily, international terrorism,” she says, “but lax control, as we’ve seen on September 11, has caused many losses of life and hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Screening would-be students more closely, and turning away students like Busarello and Feist — even at the risk of turning the eyes of the world’s youth toward other, newer, powers — may keep out the next airplane hijacker or protect the country from illegal immigrants looking to overstay their student visas. But borders are traditionally porous things, where those with the most illicit motives often evade the rules and lines that catch the better intentioned, and critics of current immigration policies are wary of trading the hope of snaring elusive enemies for the benefits they say international students bring. “The pendulum has swung too far,” says Cal State Hayward’s Wallace.

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