Proposed Rules on Foreign Students Leave Many Colleges Worried
They fear declines in enrollment, revenue, and diversity
By SARA HEBEL
Many campus officials and higher-education lobbyists are worried that fewer foreign students will choose to enroll at American colleges if Congress goes too far in sharpening scrutiny of people who enter the United States on student or exchange visas.
Lawmakers have made reforming the nation's visa system a priority in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and many college lobbyists support tinkers that would improve the monitoring of students on visas. But those officials aren't backing away from some positions they held even before the attacks, such as opposing plans to force foreign students to pay a fee for a new database that would monitor them. Lobbyists and some college officials say that the fee, as well as a new plan to lengthen the application process for student visas, could lead to a noticeable decline in foreign-student enrollment.
A drop would hurt college coffers, because foreign students typically pay full tuition. College officials say that the broader economy could also take a hit, because foreign students are estimated to contribute about $12.3-billion a year to the American economy.
The new fee and a longer visa-application process could also threaten the existence of some short-term academic programs that cater to international students, such as summer English courses. And the added cost and new hurdles could hamper American colleges' ability to compete for top foreign scholars and researchers.
"This really gets at the heart of U.S. prominence in certain disciplines in higher education," asserts Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
As part of broad visa-reform efforts, members of Congress are pushing to speed the creation of the federal database to monitor foreign students, and are offering proposals that would require background checks of all applicants for student visas.
Several higher-education organizations, led by the American Council on Education, have presented lawmakers with alternative plans for visa reform. Lobbyists for the groups say they are encouraged by the willingness of some members of Congress to listen to their concerns. The college groups have asked Congress to help pay for the foreign-student database, and have proposed ways to improve the screening and monitoring of foreign students from countries on the United States' terrorism watch list.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, has been at the forefront of the recent debate over student visas. In the wake of news that one of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks had entered the United States on a student visa, the senator proposed a six-month moratorium on issuing such visas.
College groups helped persuade her to back away from that plan, and she is now assembling broad legislation to reform the nation's entire visa system. Ms. Feinstein is sharing drafts of the bill with college officials to get their feedback.
Other lawmakers are beginning to draw up their own visa-reform bills, and higher-education lobbyists expect Congress to act on the issue relatively quickly this fall.
Many advocates for colleges and foreign students still oppose several proposals by Senator Feinstein and others. The advocates want the federal government to foot the whole bill for creating and operating the new foreign-student database at the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. But Senator Feinstein and Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, have said they intend to force students to help finance the project.
The student database was mandated by a 1996 federal law that called for charging each foreign student $95 to finance the system. The two senators and other lawmakers have said that students should help pay for the database because they benefit from the student-visa system.
But lobbyists and some campus officials say the extra expense could make it harder for needy students and those from developing countries to afford to study in the United States.
"If this has now become a national priority, as it seems to have become, it makes sense to have the federal government pay for
it," says Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
The group led the fight against the student database prior to September 11. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, however, it dropped its opposition, saying that the time for debate had ended.
Even though they disagree on the student fee, both Senator Feinstein and the college groups wrote this month to President
Bush, asking him to designate $36-million in emergency spending to help the INS get the tracking system up and running as soon as possible.
The 1996 bill that mandated the database required it to be in place by 2003. But INS officials told lawmakers this month that they could roll it out nationally before 2003 if they received start-up money.
Twenty-two colleges and universities in the Southeast are using pilot versions of the database, and a dozen institutions in the Boston area are scheduled to join in the testing by the end of the year.
As the INS prepares the database, some private student-loan providers and others have suggested an interim plan to help the federal government confirm whether students on visas enroll at their colleges. The lenders say the INS is considering their proposal, which would allow the agency to tap into a nonprofit national student-loan clearinghouse that contains electronic records on the enrollment standing, degree status, and student loans of about 86 percent of all students at American colleges.
Meanwhile, if the student fee for the new INS database remains, as seems likely, college groups say they would like to see changes in how it is to be paid and collected.
Ms. Feinstein and Mr. Kyl have said they intend to involve institutions in the collection process. But college lobbyists and directors of campus foreign-student offices say the fee should be collected by State Department officials when students apply for visas, or by INS officials at U.S. ports of entry.
Many college lobbyists and campus officials also oppose a collection plan that the INS is considering. The agency has proposed requiring student-visa applicants to pay the database fee by credit card over the Internet or in American dollars at U.S. consulates abroad. Applicants would be required to do so before they could obtain a visa.
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, told Congress that the approach "would seriously undermine the ability of most foreign students to enroll at American colleges."
Many students in developing countries do not have access to credit cards, U.S. dollars, or the Internet, say some college officials and foreign students.
Moreover, the fee for the database would be nonrefundable. Students would be out $95 even if their visa applications were rejected.
Mamuka Machavariani, a citizen of the former Soviet republic of Georgia who is studying at Georgetown University, says that he would have been able to pay a $95 fee with a credit card, and that the extra charge "looks like nothing" compared with the more than $7,000 he is paying in tuition.
But Mr. Machavariani, who is studying English as a foreign language and business administration in a yearlong program, says that paying the fee might not be worth it for people who plan to study in the United States for shorter periods. Shelling out the payment upfront also would be a high risk for many students in former Soviet countries. Obtaining an American visa "is very difficult and very complicated, and a lot of people don't qualify," Mr. Machavariani says.
At a Congressional hearing this month, Senator Kyl dismissed arguments that applicants for student visas would have a hard time paying the money by credit card or in U.S. dollars, saying that dollars are widely available in other countries.
But he urged colleges to suggest an alternate way to collect the fee. He said institutions might be able to pay the fees for foreign students in advance and get reimbursed once the students arrive. College lobbyists say they are working on a proposal to present to Congress.
In addition to concerns about the fee, lobbyists and some college officials are worried about other proposals from Senator
Some say the visa system would be slowed down too much by her plan to require the INS to complete background checks of all applicants for student visas before the State Department decides whether to grant the visas.
"The INS doesn't have the capability to conduct these searches," argues M. Louise Krumm, director of English-as-a-foreign-language programs at Georgetown. "That, in a sense, would be a moratorium" on student visas.
Many higher-education lobbyists say they would like Congress to appropriate more money to the INS and to State Department consular-affairs offices, so that they could conduct more-extensive reviews of applicants for all visas.
Mr. Johnson, of the international-educators group, calls "hugely problematic" Senator Feinstein's plan to require colleges to accept responsibility for making sure students follow the terms of their visas.
Higher-education lobbyists also emphasize that it's more important than ever for the United States to encourage foreign students to enroll at American colleges. They note that the more than 500,000 student visas that the State Department issues each year represent only about 2 percent of all nonimmigrant visas. Having those students on American campuses, some lobbyists, college officials, and students argue, helps to eradicate the negative stereotypes that some Americans and foreigners have of each other.
"This tiny, tiny, infinitesimal minority of people who happen to be here on a student visa are being painted as some kind of unique threat," Mr. Johnson argues. "It is important for this country that these students come."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and the American Council on Education (on behalf of 44 college groups) have each released plans to change regulations on visas for foreign students.
Report to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service each quarter on foreign students' academic status, the courses
they take, the date their visas were issued and when they expire, and any disciplinary actions the college took against
Sign affidavit certifying that the institution accepts responsibility for making sure students follow the terms of their visas.
Conduct background check on applicants for student visas.
Before the State Department issued a visa, the foreign student would have to first submit an application to the INS.
Provide $36-million in federal funds to help the INS start up a new database to track foreign students, but require
foreign students to pay a fee to help finance the system. Include spouses and children in the database, as well as
information that is unique to each foreign student, such as fingerprints or facial images.
Integrate all data on foreign students so that it could be retrieved at U.S. ports of entry, State Department consular
offices, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Place more INS and U.S. Customs Service inspectors at U.S. ports of entry to add more scrutiny of incoming foreign
students and others.
Within 30 days of the start of an academic period:
Supply an electronic update to INS that would provide the date foreign students began their studies, their degree
programs and fields, their academic status, and dates any foreign students had dropped out of programs and why.
Report to the INS if any person who the INS indicated entered the country on an immigration form provided by the
college did not show up on campus or if any foreign student who accepted an offer of admission did not enroll.
Notify a college within 15 days after a foreign student enters the United States using immigration forms from the
Require State Department officials to conduct more extensive background checks on people who apply for student visas
and are from countries on the department's watch list of states that support terrorism.
Delay colleges' issuance of immigration forms, known as I-20 forms, to foreign students from countries on the terrorism
watch list until the student has formally accepted admission, rather than when an institution makes an offer. Have colleges
send I-20 forms to a U.S. consulate abroad rather than the student. This would force a student who has been admitted
to several institutions to choose only one.
Wait 30 days before issuing a visa to a student from a country on the terrorism watch list.
Have the federal government pay for developing and operating the new computerized system to monitor foreign students,
rather than force foreign students to finance it.