The number of international students beginning graduate studies at U.S. universities has declined for the third year in a row. But the 6% drop is the smallest in 3 years, an improvement that some attribute in part to faster handling of visa applications.

The news, in a survey released last week by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), comes as a relief to higher education organizations, which had braced for the worst earlier this year after a 28% drop in international graduate applications and an 18% drop in offers of admission. Enrollments, which represent the final step in that progression, were down 10% in the fall of 2003 following an 8% drop the year before. The decline appeared in the first academic year after the 11 September terrorist attacks and reversed several years of growth in the number of international students.

Universities have stepped up their efforts to assist foreign students, says CGS president Debra Stewart, "by streamlining their admissions processes, enhancing their use of technology, and forming international partnerships." The council says those measures contributed to a rise this year in the percentage of admitted international students who ended up enrolling.

"I am pretty sure that we have gotten over a hump in terms of visa delays," says Sherif Barsoum, associate director of the Office of International Education at Ohio State University in Columbus, who says he has received "not one e-mail or phone call this year complaining about a visa." Another survey released this week by five groups, including CGS and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, reported no change in undergraduate enrollments but declines in graduate enrollments at two-thirds of major research institutions.

"The good news is that the administration has become aware of the seriousness of the problem and has begun to take steps to address some of the obstacles that are discouraging or preventing legitimate students and scholars from coming to the United States," says NAFSA's Marlene M. Johnson. "The bad news is that, despite some positive signs, the overall numbers are still discouraging."

University administrators say their schools still need to combat the perception that U.S. campuses are unfriendly toward international students. Toward that goal, some universities are reimbursing students for the $100 fee the government charges to implement the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which tracks foreign students once they arrive. "It's not a lot of money, and it sends out a welcoming message," says Patricia Parker, assistant director of admissions at Iowa State University in Ames, which saw a 25% drop in first-time international graduate enrollment this fall.

Overall graduate enrollment is down 1%, according to the CGS survey, and 2% fewer domestic students are entering graduate school. The life sciences and engineering show the steepest declines in first-time international enrollment within the sciences, whereas the physical sciences are enjoying a 6% rise in first-time international students (see graph).

Showing up. Enrollments are the last step in the process of attending graduate school, and trends vary by field.

"We made offers to more international students this year than usual, anticipating that some of those who might a ccept would have trouble getting visas," says Allen Goldman, chair of the physics department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "That didn't materialize." The result, says Goldman, is a larger entering class--35 rather than 25 students--that is also more international.

Reposted with permission from Science News, 12 November 2004