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U.S. Schools Losing Foreign Talent

Visa hurdles prompt international students to pursue chemistry graduate studies elsewhere

April 5, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 14

Penn State's chemistry department--currently being moved into this new facility--saw a dramatic decline of 408 foreign applicants between 2003 and 2004.
Penn State's chemistry department--currently being moved into this new facility--saw a dramatic decline of 408 foreign applicants between 2003 and 2004.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has been instituting a series of reforms to its system of issuing visas to foreign nationals. Perhaps no other sector of society has been as affected by these reforms as academia, particularly the nation's graduate schools, which have traditionally been a beacon for students from around the world.

Increasing media coverage of the situation has highlighted many dramatic, individual circumstances in which foreign graduate students of high caliber have been delayed or denied entry or reentry into the U.S. to continue or complete their studies and research.

Because of concerns about the export of sensitive technologies to possibly hostile nations, foreign graduate students in the sciences seem to have been particularly affected. But very little data have accompanied the many press accounts--until recently.

Chemical & Engineering News, for one, has attempted to attach some numbers to this situation, which has drawn increasing concern in the science and engineering community at large. Over the past two months, C&EN has attempted to cull relevant data on foreign graduate students from the top U.S. graduate chemistry departments.

The picture that emerges is complex. There is a definite decline in the number of foreign graduate students who choose to study in the U.S., and their choices are more often than not driven by changes in this country's foreign student visa system.

But the declines reflect a broader reality, experts say. Even as the U.S. tightens border security, countries in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere are continuing to build their own capacity for higher education in science and technology fields, including chemistry. Today, students are making different choices about whether to study in the U.S. because increasingly they have other options.

TO QUANTIFY the current situation, C&EN contacted the department heads at the top 50 chemistry departments ranked by National Science Foundation funding. A total of 31 departments responded to a set of 10 questions about foreign graduate students and the impact of changes to U.S. visa policy.

Of the departments that responded, 71% report that foreign students already enrolled at their institutions have had trouble reentering the U.S. when they leave for business trips or vacations. In addition, 74% say that at least one student accepted at their institution in 2003 has been unable to join the chemistry department because of visa delays or denials.

What's more, the number of applications from foreign students has declined between the 2002–03 and 2003–04 academic years at 55% of the schools responding. The exact declines ranged from fewer than 10 applicants to more than 400.

Although the survey only asked about foreign students in general, 52% of the responding departments specifically mentioned students from the People's Republic of China when reporting problems with visa delays or denials--a trend that continues to puzzle most university officials.

"Last year, we thought the visa troubles for Chinese applicants might have to do with SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], but nothing we received from the embassies confirmed that," says David J. Hart, professor of chemistry and vice chair of graduate studies at Ohio State University.

Of the 19 foreign students to whom Ohio State's chemistry department made acceptance offers, only 12 were able to obtain visas, and the remaining seven were almost all from Beijing, Hart says. The official reason these students were denied visas is that they could not prove they would return home after their studies.

"Well, of course they can't," Hart says, meaning that students applying to begin their studies should not be expected to know exactly what their plans will be upon graduation.

George M. Bodner, professor of chemical education at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., says the survey data are in line with what he would expect based on conversations with faculty at Purdue and at other schools. "These numbers are very clean," he says.

Bruce M. Novak, head of the department of chemistry at North Carolina State University, cautions that enrollment figures should be examined carefully when considering any school's application declines. "But from our own statistics, I believe the numbers are down," he says. "There's been a drop in international applications [at NC State] across physics, chemistry, and math."

Despite the continuing delays and declining applications, 58% of the schools that responded indicate that the impact of visa delays on their overall chemistry program has been minimal.

Bodner attributes this figure to the balance that the top-ranked schools have between foreign and U.S. students enrolled. Schools with smaller graduate programs are more heavily populated by foreign students, he says, with some not enrolling any domestic graduate students in a given year. He predicts that these schools will be the first and hardest hit by foreign application declines.


IN ADDITION TO C&EN's survey, numerous reports on the foreign graduate student visa situation have recently become available from a variety of sources. One is a General Accounting Office report that identified the State Department's Visas Mantis system (an extra security check designed to prevent sensitive technology transfer) as a significant source of delay for visa issuance (C&EN, March 1, page 8). On average, GAO found that the interagency review takes 67 days for the visa to be processed and for the State Department to notify the consular post.


Consular officers at U.S. embassies overseas decide whether a visa applicant must undergo the Visas Mantis process, mostly by consulting the classified Technology Alert List (TAL). This document, according to GAO, "lists science- and technology-related fields where, if knowledge gained from work in these fields were used against the United States, it could be potentially harmful."


TAL, which is revised on an annual basis, is classified information, but the 2002 version made its way onto the Internet, a State Department spokesman says. Broad areas of chemistry, biochemistry, and materials science were included on the list that year, and there is no reason to believe that it has since been significantly amended or shortened.

State Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesman Stuart Patt says the department engages in constant discussion with the science and engineering community about what to include on TAL. He disputes GAO's charge that the consular affairs officials using TAL to determine the need for Visas Mantis reviews are mostly junior staff, saying they are typically staff who are on second or third tours of duty with the State Department. Patt adds that the average age of a new consular affairs officer is 35 years old and that there is an effort to provide training for officers on how to use the list.

"We're trying to provide the best training through our Nonproliferation Bureau," Patt says.

If a Visas Mantis check is deemed necessary, the consular officer prepares a cable with information on the applicant, and that cable is sent to Washington, D.C., where it is reviewed by State's Bureau of Nonproliferation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other agencies. When all of the reviews are in place--and the FBI review is always included--the information is sent back to the consular post, where an official makes a final decision on visa issuance.

While evaluating this process, GAO found lengthy delays for many Visas Mantis reviews in several places around the world.

"During our fieldwork at posts in China, India, and Russia in September 2003, we also obtained data indicating that 410 Visas Mantis cases submitted in fiscal 2003 were still outstanding more than 60 days at the end of the fiscal year. In addition, we found numerous cases--including 27 students and scholars from Shanghai--that were pending more than 120 days as of Oct. 16, 2003," the report notes.

Many problems contribute to the delays, GAO says, including "interoperability problems" among the information systems used by State and the FBI.

"We found that in fiscal 2003, some Visas Mantis cases did not always reach their intended recipient and, as a result, some of the security checks were delayed," according to GAO. "A Consular Affairs official told us that, in fall 2003, there were about 700 Visas Mantis cases sent from Beijing that did not reach the FBI for the security check. The official did not know how the cases got lost but told us that it took Consular Affairs about a month to identify this problem and provide the FBI with the cases. As a result, several hundred visa applications were delayed for another month."

Not surprisingly, GAO is recommending that the secretary of state, the director of the FBI, and the secretary of homeland security develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process.

In the meantime, about a third of the schools that responded to C&EN's survey say delays caused by the evolving visa process are dramatically affecting individual students and their research. Most striking, several schools already estimate monetary losses ranging from several thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars as a result of these setbacks.

The University of Utah notes in its survey response that for every month a foreign student is prevented from doing research, the department loses about $3,000. Similarly, the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, estimates that one Chinese student, delayed from his research by a month, has cost them about $2,000 in lost salary.

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, reports that delays caused by changes in visa policy since 2001 have cost the chemistry department 10 person-years of research and $50,000 in additional costs. These costs are partially due to the fact that the delayed foreign students are prevented from acting as teaching assistants, so replacements must be hired on short notice. Five other schools also noted that visa delays are impacting foreign students' ability to teach, usually because the students miss out on English-language training prior to starting the semester.

"That kills us," Purdue's Bodner says. "We lose that first year because the students are still struggling with language while taking courses and doing research."

DESPITE THESE LOSSES, most of the schools that responded to the C&EN survey say they understand and appreciate why the visa process has been changed. When asked about the impact of the Student & Exchange Visitor Information System--a government-run tracking database that schools must now use to accept foreign students--32% say that it will benefit homeland security and can also help universities monitor their international student population more effectively. What most university officials protest is the particular attention being paid to students from China.

"We are gaining zero in security" by targeting Chinese students, Bodner says. "Is China a terrorist organization? No."

Novak from NC State agrees. "There's no evidence to support the level of scrutiny for China," he says. "I would guess it has something to do with residual Cold War fears."

When asked about the high percentage of chemistry students from China delayed by Visas Mantis checks, the State Department cites technology transfer worries as a primary factor.

"We are very concerned about what discoveries here will end up in the hands of the Chinese government," a State spokesman says.

"Historically, we have had relatively little difficulty obtaining visas for students from Asia in general, but now the level [of difficulty] is unprecedented," says Marvin J. Miller, chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame. Miller thinks it is possible that the elevated security, coupled with large numbers of Chinese applicants, is overwhelming the embassies.

Andrew G. Ewing, head of the chemistry department at Pennsylvania State University, agrees. "The system is backlogged," he says. One potential source of this backlog that Ewing cites is a State Department rule made effective on Aug. 1, 2003, that means almost all applicants for a nonimmigrant visa must submit to a personal interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate when, previously, the interview requirement had been waived.

Whatever the underlying reasons, continued visa delays and denials could start to affect how university administrators view overseas applicants. Novak thinks that ongoing difficulties create a potential for bias against applicants from China, for example. "You need to ensure a strong incoming class," he says. "If you think there's a bias in the system, it could very much affect your choices."


Novak notes that there are already certain government-funded projects that can't accept foreign nationals on their research teams. "In places with a large nuclear program, for example, there's heavy funding by the government, so they wouldn't take international students."

Ewing, however, does not believe the issue will stop most universities from accepting students from China because they rely too heavily on foreign enrollment. Miller thinks that the changed procedures will mean a lot more work for universities as they pursue recruitment of Chinese students. "I hope we don't give up on China out of frustration," he says.

Ohio State's Hart thinks that the delays might affect how departments evaluate Chinese applicants, "but it hasn't happened here," he says. Hart believes that the real bias in chemistry is not against foreign students but in favor of domestic applicants, a category that has been in decline for the past decade (C&EN, Feb. 16, page 68). With fewer U.S. citizens applying for chemistry graduate degrees, departments have become increasingly reliant on international students. Of the departments that responded to the C&EN survey, foreign scholars made up an average of 40% of enrolled graduates.

"There's no encouragement for people [in the U.S.] to stay in science," Bodner says. "In the 1950s, the brightest people were attracted to science because it was exciting and rewarding, and you could make more money than in most other jobs." Now, an increasing number of the best students choose business majors, he says.

Bodner is not surprised that the big research schools polled for this survey say that their overall chemistry programs are largely unaffected by the foreign student decline. These schools, he says, attract most of the decreasing number of domestic science students and so will always have a pool of top candidates from which to choose.

He goes on to say that heightened U.S. security might be only one reason for the decline in foreign student applications. An underlying factor might be the significant improvement that many countries have made to their graduate education systems.

"For a number of years, we have been training very good people who then go back home" and build programs for their own students, he says. "I can name about a half dozen chemistry departments in China that are world-class."

Ewing also notes that the global education system is evening out. The U.S. remains a leader in science education, he says, but as other countries improve, he thinks it is inevitable that more foreign students will choose to study elsewhere.

IN SOME CASES, students are already making this choice when the U.S. visa process becomes a barrier. Hart says his department made offers to the seven foreign students whose visas were denied in 2004 to come instead the following year. One responded immediately that he had already accepted an offer at a European institution.

"Some might choose to take the path of least resistance," Hart says, meaning that students will go elsewhere to study if they have an easier time entering other countries.

Some statistics support this trend. This month, the Australian government released data showing that in 2004, their schools had a 16.5% increase in the number of enrolled foreign students compared with the 2003 academic year. These numbers include a 20% increase in the number of Chinese students attending Australian universities.

Given the multifaceted nature of the issue, predictions remain mixed about the effect of evolving U.S. visa policies on the future of U.S. chemistry research and education.

"My overall view is that we haven't seen much of a negative impact," Bodner says. "But I would follow that with a big 'Yet.' "

Ewing remains even more cautious. "You need a crystal ball" to figure out the long-term impact of visa policy changes, he says. "It could be damaging, but it could be small."

C&EN Asked Department Heads 10 Questions About Their Foreign Scholars

1. How many graduate students are in your department?

2. How many are here on some type of foreign student visa?

3. Please state the significance of foreign student enrollment for your department.

4. How many of the foreign student visa holders in your department have experienced difficulties leaving or reentering the U.S. as a result of changes to the student visa program implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?

5. Has there been any decline in the number of foreign students who have applied for study in your graduate department? Please provide a number.

6. How many foreign graduate applicants accepted into your department have not been able to participate because of visa difficulties? Please provide a number.

7. Please state the impact of changes to the foreign student visa program on your current program of graduate study and research. For example, has research progress been delayed or have any programs been postponed due to immigration difficulties encountered by foreign students working in your research groups? Please provide as many details as possible, for example, dollar amounts or time elapsed on projects.

8. The Student Exchange & Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is a computer tracking system operated by the Department of Homeland Security that monitors foreign students in the U.S. New policy requires institutions to open a SEVIS file on each foreign student enrolled before that student can be issued a visa, and only institutions using SEVIS are allowed to accept international students. Are you aware of this program? Has it had any direct impact on foreign student enrollment in your department? For example, do prospective students feel their privacy is infringed by the system, or is your institution charging students extra processing fees to cover the administrative costs of running SEVIS?

9. Do you see any benefit to SEVIS or other programs that intend to more tightly monitor and control foreign student visa holders in the U.S.? What changes, if any, to these programs would you recommend?

10. What else would you like us to know about the situation for foreign graduate students in your chemistry department?



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