Decline in the attractiveness of U.S. education to the world is troubling

American colleges and universities’ ability to attract international students is in decline.

The last time this happened was after Sept. 11, 2001. While overall international travel to America was down severely — from October 2000 to September 2001, 6.3 million people from developing nations applied for American visas, that number dropped to 3.7 million in 2003, the enrollment of foreign students had also declined significantly.

According to a 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education study, applications from China to American colleges and universities had fallen by 76 percent in 2002, while those from India dropped by 58 percent. Applications to U.S. research universities from international graduate students were down by more than 25 percent and 90 percent of American colleges and universities experienced difficulties in attracting international students.

Nearly 16 years after 9/11, history is repeating itself in a disturbing way.

According to the most recent American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) survey of more than 250 American college and universities, 39 percent of colleges, representing all sizes, types and geographic diversity of the U.S. higher education, are reporting declines in international applications.

The highest decline in applications, as expected, is from the Middle East. Students from the region, reports Stephanie Saul of The New York Times, “have expressed concerned about coming to the United States. ‘We are hearing from students, even beyond the seven countries, expressing concern,’ said Frances Leslie, vice provost for the graduate division at University of California, Irvine, referring to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. ‘This year, even when students are admitted, they may not be willing to accept the offers.'”

“With approximately 15 percent of foreign students coming from Muslim-majority countries, we stand to lose the innumerable academic, cultural and foreign policy benefits that these students bring to our nation,” says Marlene Johnson, former executive director of National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, “in addition, we risk the loss of up to $4.9 billion to the U.S. economy and more than 60,000 jobs.”

And it is not just the number of applications from “Muslim-majority countries” that is shrinking, international applications from other countries, in particular from China and India, have also been impacted, “26 percent of institutions have reported undergraduate application declines from India and 25 percent reported application declines from China. 32 percent of institutions have reported graduate application declines from China, and 15 percent have reported application declines from India.” China and India, highlighted AACRAO survey, “currently make up 47 percent of our international student enrollment, with almost half a million Indian and Chinese students studying in the U.S.”

Graduate programs “appear to be feeling the worst pinch,” noted Saul, “with nearly half reporting drops. ‘Our deans describe it as a chilling effect,’ said Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. The numbers are provoking anxiety in some programs that rely on international students, who bring more than $32 billion a year into the U.S. economy˘ Slumping graduate school applications can now be seen at universities ranging from giant Big Ten public universities like Ohio State and Indiana University to regional programs such as Portland State.”

Here in Ohio, the enrollment of international students has also declined.

Ohio, according to the Institute of International Education, ranks the 8th in the U.S., with more than 37,000 international students enrolled in area colleges and universities, and international students contribute more than $1.1 billion to the state’s economy.

“College applications from international students are dramatically down,” Max Filby of Dayton Daily News reports, “including requests received by area universities that rely on the tuition revenue generated by the foreign applicants. Wright State University and University of Dayton have suffered the largest drops. Foreign student applications at Wright State University are down nearly 50 percent for fall semester compared to the same time last year. University of Dayton’s foreign undergraduate applications are down 40 percent and requests for graduate school are down 15 percent.”

The decline in the attractiveness of American college education is troubling. America’s educational and cultural influences are a source of real power. While power is the ability to alter the behavior of others to get what you want, there are three ways to accomplish that: coercion (sticks), payments (carrots), and attraction (soft power).

As America is confronting challenges around the world, we cannot afford to damage one of our major sources of power — the power of attraction, and to alienate our allies of the future.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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