Schools Grapple With New Foreign Student Laws

Next month, as the new school year begins for U.S. colleges and universities, some institutions may see fewer international faces on campus.

Due to tough national-security measures put into place after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, including mandatory registration for long-term foreign visitors and a cross-checked student visa program, coming to the U.S. for an education has become increasingly difficult, representatives of some schools have said.

"There's still a lot of concern about how this is going to turn out," said Ursula Oaks, spokeswoman for NAFSA: Association of International Educators (search). "Right now, we're in a wait-and-see period as schools are waiting for all their students to come in for the term."

Government officials said heightened security has become necessary, and as long as students and schools don't procrastinate in submitting appropriate paperwork, foreigners should be able to attend the schools of their choice on schedule.

"The American public should be happy because we're making sure everybody's being checked out," Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security (search), told

Strassberger also recommended that students not go home for breaks if their visas will expire during vacations, since it will be more difficult to re-enter the country.

"It's not something they can just walk in and expect same-day service for," Strassberger said.

Aug. 1 was the deadline for colleges to submit information on their international students to the federal government's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (search), or SEVIS.

Nearly 6,000 schools complied with the deadline, enabling them to accept foreign students. There are now 1 million foreigners registered to attend college, trade school, private school and other U.S. institutions.

Foreign students are now required to have one-on-one interviews with State Department consular offices in their home countries before visas are approved. Consular officers can waive the interviews, but since Sept. 11, fewer are eligible. Prospective students from countries such as Iran, Syria and Pakistan have to register with the U.S. government.

"Since Sept. 11, there's been a drop in enrollment in terms of [students from] the Middle East," said Fanta Aw, director of international-student services at American University in Washington, D.C. "That has discouraged, I think, quite a few students to come here to get educated."

Since 2000, visa issuances for F-1 (academic students), J-1 (exchange visitors) and M-1 (vocational or nonacademic students) classes have been decreasing.

Between Oct. 2000 and Aug. 2001, there were 476,576 visas in those categories issued. Preliminary numbers for the same months of 2002 and 2003 showed a drop to 403,742.

Scheduling quick interviews with consulates seems to be the biggest problem, school officials said, although government officials said there have been no major reports of delays.

"That really is affecting the chances of some of these students coming for the fall," said Celia Bergman, director of the International Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology (search) in Chicago, which has roughly 30 fewer foreign students enrolled this year than last. "We're definitely seeing some aftereffects of the new regulations and procedures."

The State Department recently ordered overseas consulates to make student interviews a priority.

"The time sensitivity of course of a student getting here and stating school on time is a pretty important issue," Oaks said.

Despite the new rules, some schools expect no fewer international students than in the past.

"For our incoming freshman class on the undergraduate level, we have more international students than we've ever had," said David Terraso, spokesman for the Georgia Institute of Technology (search) in Atlanta, adding that 104 foreign students would be included in this year's class — a 57.5 percent increase from last year.

When asked to explain the jump, Terraso replied: "They've heard from friends who've gone here and their families say, 'Oh, Georgia Tech is a good place, you can go there.'"

The Rochester Institute of Technology (search) in upstate New York has seen an 8 to 9 percent increase in international students in the past few years. The school expects 300 new foreign students this year, and has 1,400 enrolled at any given time.

"It looks at this point to be normal. We won't know final numbers until everybody's there," said Jeffrey Cox, RIT's associate director of international student services. "We've actually seen pretty good growth over the last several years, and we expect that to continue."

While even Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has acknowledged there were some minor bugs in SEVIS to be worked out, officials said the national security benefits outweigh the costs.

"As we keep trying to explain to students, it's a different world. We have a greater national-security threat we have to be aware of and that has changed the processes," Strassberger said. "We have to be more careful who we're letting in to the country, and we want to be a little more careful when they do come."