The post-9/11 brain drain

Published December 21, 2004 7:20PM (EST)

President Bush's approval rating isn't the only thing that's been plummeting of late. America's ability to attract the world's best and brightest, according to a report in the Times today, is slipping:

"Foreign students contribute $13 billion to the American economy annually. But this year brought clear signs that the United States' overwhelming dominance of international higher education may be ending. Foreign applications to American graduate schools declined 28 percent this year. Actual foreign graduate student enrollments dropped 6 percent. Enrollments of all foreign students, in undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral programs, fell for the first time in three decades in an annual census released this fall.

"Some of the American decline, experts agree, is due to post-Sept. 11 delays in processing student visas, which have discouraged thousands of students, not only from the Middle East but also from dozens of other nations, from enrolling in the United States. American educators and even some foreign ones say the visa difficulties are helping foreign schools increase their share of the market."

One expert quoted in the Times points out that it remains unclear whether the sudden decline in foreign enrollments is a one-time drop or the beginning of a long slide. Europe is a rising player in the global education market, as are India and China. A sharp drop in enrollment in U.S. schools from the latter two could work as a double whammy, given that India and China currently supply the top two pools of foreign brainpower for U.S. campuses. India's higher education market has enjoyed a surge in private investment in recent years, while China has declared that transforming 100 universities into world-class research institutions is a national priority, and is wooing top Chinese scholars to return home.

But many American universities still enjoy tremendous global prestige -- so blunt-instrument national security measures may pose the biggest threat.

"Many Chinese students pursue the science disciplines that set off a screening process known as Visa Mantis, intended to prevent the transfer of sensitive technology," reports the Times. "A Congressional study found that during a three-month period last year, more than half of all the Visa Mantis investigations worldwide involved Chinese students. The especially long visa delays experienced by Chinese students are a major irritant for many university presidents.

"'Chinese students are getting heightened scrutiny,' said the president of Princeton University, Shirley M. Tilghman. 'I've asked many people for the rationale, but I've never gotten an answer that makes sense.'"

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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