A new survey indicates the number of foreign graduate students enrolling for the first time at American universities is down 6 percent this year — the third straight decline after a decade of growth. Educators worry the trend is eroding America's position as the world's leader in higher education.

The fall wasn't as steep as feared, considering applications last spring were down 32 percent. American universities staved off a comparable decline in enrollment by admitting a higher percentage of students and persuading more admitted students to enroll.

But the results of the survey, of 122 member institutions by the Council of Graduate Schools (search), are still alarming to educators. American universities are highly dependent on foreign students for teaching and research help, particularly in the sciences and in engineering, a field in which foreigners comprise 50 percent of graduate enrollment.

"If you took them out of the system, we would not be at the same point we are in many of our endeavors — scientific endeavors and also economic growth," said Heath Brown, the council's director of research and policy analysis. And students who return home also advance American interests by bringing to leadership positions a better understanding of the United States, he said.

More than two-thirds of schools reported some decline. The steepest drops were in business (12 percent), sciences/agriculture (10 percent) and engineering (8 percent), though physical sciences rose 6 percent.

Experts believe a major factor is the difficulty — or at least perceived difficulty — of getting student visas under tightened U.S. immigration policies (search). Other factors include anti-Americanism abroad, and increasing competitiveness from universities in India, China and Europe.

The State Department has tried to streamline the student visa application process, and a number of universities have taken matters into their own hands, stepping up efforts to provide technical help for foreign students. The University of Texas, one of the nation's largest enrollers of foreign students, recently said it would reimburse international students the $100 fee they must pay to obtain a student visa.

Part of the motivation came from Texas President Larry Faulkner's frustration when alumnus John Coetzee (search), the winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature, declined to attend a ceremony in his honor at the university because he feared the hassle of traveling to the United States.

UT had 638 incoming foreign graduate students this year, down about 50 from a year ago. Jerry Wilcox, director of the school's international office, said the visa process is improving, but many are still turned off by delays and worried that, even if they get a visa, they could be stuck again if they return home for a holiday.

Governments in countries such as Great Britain and Australia are working successfully to lure students who might otherwise come to America, Wilcox said.

"I'm hopelessly optimistic. What we have to offer here in terms of graduate education and the funding to support smart people from around the world is almost unparalleled," he said. "My sense is over time we'll come back — the numbers might not be quite as big — but there are a lot of things working against it right now."