If We Build Barriers, Will They Still Come?
It is well-known that foreign students have had a more difficult time obtaining visas which allow them to enter the U.S. since the 9-11 attacks. What is not fully understood is (a) have these difficulties actually resulted in a down-turn in international enrollments at U.S. campuses, and (b) what will the long-term effect be?
NAFSA: The Association of International Educators and the Association of American Universities (AAU) have conducted the most comprehensive research on the first question, and based on their October 2002 survey they have determined that U.S. institutions experienced an 8% drop in foreign student enrollments between Fall 2001 and Fall 2002. This is a significant but not precipitous decline. The NAFSA/AAU interpretation of the data is that, "the steady growth in foreign student numbers witnessed during the last several years leveled off in 2002."
However, several other factors could be considered which might lead to a less benign view of the drop-off between 2001-2002. First, though absolute enrollment numbers have increased in recent years, the U.S. share of this market has steadily decreased for decades. Again according to NAFSA: "The U.S. share of the internationally mobile student market has declined from 40% in 1982 to 30% today. In other words, U.S. anti-terrorism actions are not the only factors affecting student choices -- the entire field is increasingly competitive, and the main competitors are not all operating under the same constraints."
Furthermore, the Fall 2002 semester was the end of Year One of the new U.S. student visa restrictions. Many students caught in that process had made their decisions before the new climate was well established. This Summer, that will not be the case. Students all over the world are well aware of how difficult it will be to obtain entry and re-entry visas. The International English Center in Boulder, CO, an English-prep feeder for many U.S. universities, claims that, "More than 90 students were enrolled in fall 2001, but that number had been cut in half by the first session of this year, which had the lowest number of students since the school opened in 1975."
NAFSA's response to the situation is contained in a set of public policy recommendations presented on May 2, 2003 to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary for Homeland Security Thomas Ridge, which begins with an urgent request, "to ensure that the visa screening process is streamlined in time to avoid a recurrence of last year’s crisis, when hundreds of students and scholars were unable to enter or return for the fall semester." The statement then goes on to describe five specific recommendations for making the screening process more efficient.
If they are adopted, the changes may have a positive effect. But the application season is well underway, and for students who have already made other, non-U.S. choices for continuing their education any new procedures designed to alleviate the situation will be irrelevant. My guess is that they will not be put in place on a timely basis, and that this year's visa season will be just as problematic as last year's, if not more. In fact, due to the worldwide economic downturn, the competition from other nations providing higher education services to foreign students, and the U.S. restrictions on in-coming students -- it seems safe to predict that enrollment numbers will be down even more this year.
Exporting higher education services is an important part of the U.S. economy. Does the expected decrease in foreign students mean that the U.S. can expect lose ground in this lucrative service sector? Maybe. But there also may be ways to compensate. If it has become too difficult for the students to come to the service providers -- why not let the service providers go to where the students are? Foreign student revenues are categorized under GATS as Mode 2, "Consumption Abroad." Mode 1, "Cross Border Supply,": (ie, "Distance Ed) and Mode 3, "Commercial Presence" could conceivably make up for what is being lost in Mode 2. Modes 1 and 3 comprise the emerging field of Transnational Ed, the primary topic of this blog. Although we wish that all higher education export modes could grow and prosper, it may be that what hurts Study Abroad helps Transnational Ed.