Harvard Bucks Trend of Fewer Foreign Students

University hits three-year high in enrollment of international students

The number of international students enrolled at U.S. universities nationwide has declined for the first time since 1972, a recent report shows, but Harvard’s tally of foreign students is at a three-year high.

The latest version of the Open Doors 2004 report, published annually by the Institute of International Education, shows a 2.4 percent drop in the number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities during the 2003-2004 academic year. This decrease—the first in more than 30 years—comes at the heels of a drop-off in rate of growth in 2002-2003, which officials in the higher education community attribute to post-Sept. 11 visa restrictions and regulations.

Yet Harvard hasn’t seen the same decrease in the number of international students this year. The enrollment tally for international students reached 3,546 this fall—compared to 3,459 in 2002 and 3,403 in 2003. Even so, University officials say they are still concerned.

“All of us feel that we’re not immune to these national trends,” said Sharon Ladd, the director of the Harvard International Office. “There has been genuine concern that international students may be going elsewhere.”

The drop in international students at Harvard last year marked the first time in Ladd’s memory that the University’s figures hadn’t increased.

University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote letters last April to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge ’67 suggesting that a decline in the number of international students who studied in the country would harm the nation’s international stature.

“If the visa process remains complicated and filled with delays,” Summers wrote, “we risk losing some of our most talented scientists and compromising our country’s position at the forefront of technological innovation.”

In addition to visa delays, several international administrators have cited complications surrounding SEVIS, a national database of foreign-student records established after Sept. 11, as a deterrent. In its first months of operation, the database was notorious for losing information, causing delays and preventing some scholars from entering the country successfully.

As of this fall, the SEVIS program also requires all international students seeking visas to pay a $100 registration fee. In October, Summers announced that the University would refund the SEVIS fee for all international students to help ensure that they would not be dissuaded from study at Harvard.

Ladd speculated that the numbers increased this year because Harvard’s international reputation is strong enough to withstand—and outweigh—any deterrents that post-Sept. 11 restrictions might impose.

“For some schools in this country, the name itself carries so much weight that students really are interested coming here to study,” she said. “I think it may be easier for students who are going to others school to choose to go to school in England and Australia.”

The number of international students increased more in the College than in any other of Harvard’s schools—a rise that may reflect the University’s vigilant undergraduate recruitment efforts over the course of the past year. Director of Undergraduate Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 told The Crimson earlier this month that the College was enjoying the benefits of strong coverage from international media.

But in spite of the spike in this year’s international numbers, leaders within the Harvard community have been quick to recognize the onerous promise of this year’s national decline. Former Kennedy School of Government dean Joseph S. Nye wrote an op-ed in The New York Times yesterday citing the recent drop in international enrollment as evidence that restrictions established in the name of national security are damaging the nation’s international stature.

Nye says concerns like these first came to his attention while he was Kennedy School dean and heard stories from foreign students who had difficulty entered the country because of restrictions. Now the Sultan of Oman professor of international relations, he describes his role as that of a “concerned citizen.”

He says he doesn’t think Harvard’s recent upturn in international enrollment is reason enough to drop the issue.

“I think the university has to look at this from a national perspective,” he said, adding, “we have to point out to Congress and the Administration the costs of overly restrictive policy.”

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.