US Desperately Seeks Latin Students

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 8/23/2007 10:45:00 AM
It is no big secret that the United States lost a lot of foreign students in the aftermath of 9/11 as the Feds cracked down hard on these students. Many of the hijackers, after all, were in the United States under student visas. American schools have been complaining however that these stringent rules discouraged throngs of legitimate international students from coming to America. As they pay significantly higher fees than their American counterparts, tougher regulations on international students translated into a lot of lost revenue, both for these schools and the government as well.

The United States seems more aware of the financial losses arising from exceedingly stringent policies on granting student visas. Just recently, a Newsweek feature related how the US is advertising itself as a destination for Chinese students--a first. Now, the Associated Press reports that even Latin America is being targeted for a marketing campaign to bring back students from that region. From my point of view, the weak dollar is making the US a comparatively good deal compared to other English-speaking educational destinations like Australia, Canada, and Great Britain, whose currencies are very strong against the rather worthless US dollar. On the other hand, foreign students may be put off by heavy-handed American policies. Call it the fear of being Guantanamo Ghraibed if another terrorist attack happens on US soil:
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings looks more like a college recruiter this week, traveling through South America with American university leaders to woo international students spooked by lengthy visa delays linked to post-9/11 security.

"American higher education is open for business to students from our neighbors," Spellings said in Santiago, Chile, before meeting Tuesday with students and university rectors. Her next stop on Wednesday is Sao Paulo, the continent's largest city.

The number of foreign students enrolling in American universities is rebounding from a drop caused by extra visa security precautions following the September 11 attacks. But the number of visas granted to students seeking to study for a year or more is still down.

Only 5,881 F-1 student visas were handed out in Brazil in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, down from 12,325 in 2001, according to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia.

And competition for students is growing fast from nations such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Even South Africa is in the race to attract South America's best and brightest.

American universities depend on foreign students for teaching and research help, and policymakers want future foreign leaders to be familiar with the United States. Foreign students also provide billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy.

"If they got rid of the visa difficulties, I think most Brazilian students would choose the United States," said Leticia Amorim, a 22-year-old business administration major who will travel soon to Texas or New York to study.

But she said many of her friends are still concerned about U.S. visa requirements, and some are worried that they might not be well-received. She said the U.S. visa process is viewed as cumbersome and is the main reason "why people are going to other countries."

Education experts said American officials have speeded up visa approval in recent years, and Spellings insisted that the trend of falling enrollment has been reversed.

"We have started to regain ground that had been lost after September 11," she said in Chile.

But Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom have launched intense marketing campaigns to attract students from Latin America, where improving economic conditions have swelled college enrollments and demand for study abroad.

Renee Zicman, who heads international cooperation efforts at Sao Paulo's Catholic University, said Australia doubled its share of Brazilian students in just two or three years. An annual event to attract students to South African universities now draws heavy interest.

"We've just had a boom in the market, and these countries have calendars of events seeking out students in Brazil," she said.

The U.S. Education Department said the number of student and exchange program visas hit an all-time high of 591,050 in 2006. But the number of F-1 student visas for study in the United States for a year or more was 273,870 in 2006, below the high of 293,357 in 2001.

Officials have made similar recent trips to Asia. Accompanying Spellings this week are university presidents and chancellors from California, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri and Oklahoma.

"It's true that the U.K., Canada and Australia are aggressively marketing and increasing their percentages of international students, but they don't have the capacity to take the millions the United States can take," said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the New York-based Institute of International Education.

She added: "The problem is getting the word out to the people that the situation has changed, and making them believe it."