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The United States’ visa policy for foreign students is appallingly muddled—leaving many students who dream of attending higher eduction in the United States waiting unfairly for months, if not years, in limbo. Still other students have been discouraged from applying. Reform is clearly needed, and University President Lawrence H. Summers should be commended for recently attempting to rectify America’s wrongheaded strategy. Summers’ leadership, while many others in academia remain silent, is admirable.
In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Summers urged immediate revisions of the student visa application process to avert the detrimental decline in foreign graduate students across the country. The situation has become so acute that Harvard and other institutions can no longer attract adequate numbers of foreign graduate applicants.
In a study released in February, conducted jointly by several national organizations including the American Council of Education, the Association of American Universities and the Association of International Educators, 19 of the top 25 U.S. research institutions with the most international graduate students reported a decline in applications from international students. Of these schools, nine experienced a drop exceeding 30 percent. Of the 530 U.S. institutions surveyed, almost half received fewer international graduate applications compared to last year. Instead, many of these students are turning to countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia; schools in both of these countries experienced upsurges in foreign applicants this year.
In his letter, Summers highlights the particular hardship science programs have experienced at Harvard and elsewhere. Visa policies have been especially stringent for students from China, India and the Middle East, where many applicants seek graduate study in science and engineering fields. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has seen a decline of 40 percent in applications from China alone in some of its science programs. Because of these declines, many students abroad suspect an unwelcoming climate for foreigners inside the United States—a perception which has further compounded the drop in applications.
After Sept. 11, 2001, stricter, more systematic security measures were needed to ensure the safety of Americans. After all, several of the hijackers entered United States borders using student visas. Yet a balance must be found. Currently, the State Department has swung too far away (and in too disorganized a fashion) from welcoming visitors who are essential to America’s vitality, innovation and global leadership. Finding this appropriate balance is crucial, and continuing under the current framework will hurt national interests and compromise America’s future. The United States accrues enormous security benefits from the higher education community by leading the world in technological innovation. Current declines in foreign graduate school applicants will undermine the position of American universities as international forums for academic exchange. And in the long run, that will jeopardize the U.S. position in the global community.
As Summers emphasized, the State Department should clearly define timeframes for students requiring visas. At present, many international students are forced to wait in the dark for the results of their visa applications, with no indication of when the decision will be made. This indefinite delay is frustrating as many students cannot work, study or make reasonably informed decisions for their future. The Department of Homeland Security must not veil administrative disorganization with the pretense of national security. To drag their feet when students can be screened in a timely manner is unacceptable. We hope the Bush administration receives Summers’ recommendations with open arms and takes decisive action to maintain the esteem of American institutions and keep this nation strong.
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