Student visa delays affect universities

The changes create particular worry for science departments.
Monday, November 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:11 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

Amid tighter scrutiny of foreign visitors since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many U.S. universities are experiencing a sharp drop in the enrollment of international students.

It is an especially troublesome trend for science and engineering graduate schools, which get a large number of students from abroad.

While the number of international students at MU rose 1 percent this fall from the previous academic year, many students and faculty advisers describe a more onerous visa screening process. They fear the crackdown could discourage international students from studying in the United States.

“Some students give up at the beginning and do not even try to come to America anymore,” said Sheng Xiaoying, a newly enrolled master’s student from China.

Instead, she said, many students look for educational opportunities in countries such as England and Canada.

In addition to the more rigorous review of visa applications since Sept. 11, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2002 proposed restricting international students from access to “sensitive” coursework in areas such as nuclear technology, chemical engineering and biotechnology.

That proposal was scrapped in favor of a system in which foreign students who deal with sensitive technology are subject to investigation by the FBI and other U.S. security agencies before they’re issued a visa.

Geethpriya Palaniswaamy, who came to Columbia from India this fall to pursue a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, was subject to such scrutiny. Her visa was delayed for two months while a background check was performed.

“The fear is about getting a visa,” she said. “It’s a little easy to get into college, but it’s more difficult to get the visa.”

According to a recent report from the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, Palaniswaamy’s wait was typical. In 2003, it took an average of 67 days for foreign consulates to receive a response from federal agencies on requests for security checks on visa applicants, the study found.

In addition to visas being

delayed, but more are being denied than before, said David Currey, assistant director of the MU International Center. The Immigration Policy Center’s report showed a nearly 27 percent decrease in the number of F-1 student visas issued by the State Department in 2002.

“I can see the reason for national security issues, and I also agree that we need to have a more thorough screening process. But in general, we should allow people who meet the criteria for graduate studies, after passing security screening, to come,” said Fu-hong Hsieh, director of graduate studies for MU’s biological engineering department.

Nationally, the number of foreign students enrolled at U.S. universities dropped 2.4 percent in 2003, and the number of foreign students enrolling for the first time in U.S. graduate programs decreased 6 percent this fall, according to reports from the Institute for International Education and the Council of Graduate Schools.

The MU physics department has recorded two recent visa denials, but H.R. Chandrasekhar, director of graduate studies, said changes in the foreign student population over the past several years seem to be random.

This year, despite the Council of Graduate Schools reporting a 32 percent decline in international applications nationwide, Chandrasekhar said the physics department had a surge of foreign graduate applications.

Although Chandrasekhar said delayed or denied visas do not have a serious effect on departments engaged in pure research such as physics, those with time-sensitive grants or corporate projects might find their financial support delayed or lost if students awarded research positions do not make it to the university on time.

The university cannot control visa issues, but Currey said the MU graduate school has streamlined and restructured the admission process to allow immigration documents to be sent out more quickly, ensuring a greater rate of acceptance among foreign students.

However, MU’s slight increase in overall foreign student enrollment was fueled by an 8 percent increase in international doctoral students, masking a 6 percent decrease in international master’s students and a 16 percent decline in enrollment of Middle Eastern students.

Although the Institute for International Education’s report shows that 2003 was the first time in three decades that national enrollment figures witnessed an absolute decline, MU’s international enrollment has fluctuated significantly in the past 15 years.

International graduate enrollment, which reached a high of 1,155 in 1990, declined to 762 in 1998 and has gradually increased to this year’s total of 1,044.

Undergraduate international enrollment, on the other hand, peaked at 529 in 1996 and since then has steadily decreased. This year, undergraduate enrollment increased by just one student, to 294.

“In the past 10 years, there’s been a 50 percent decline in undergraduate international students,” Currey said. “Now that’s a real issue of concern.”

Currey said the Asian economic crisis was the largest contributing factor to the decrease in undergraduate foreign students in the mid-1990s. Since then, the university has been unable to recover the loss of students from Thailand, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.

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