Foreign military students must pay Academies fear limit on tuition waivers will affect diversity

September 25, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

A highly touted program that allows foreign students to attend the U.S. Naval Academy has had its purse strings tightened by members of Congress who feel the program's costs had gone unchecked for too long.

As a result, incoming Naval Academy freshmen have just four foreign classmates -- from Bahrain, Cameroon, Turkey and Croatia -- compared with 10 in most new classes. And the future of the program is in jeopardy.

Similar programs are at risk at the Air Force Academy, which has seven foreign freshmen this year instead of its usual 10, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which has six foreign freshmen. It's the first time any academy had such vacancies.

Threats to the program began last year when Congress passed legislation to rein in the $7.2 million lost to the tuition-free ride most foreign students had been getting.

Foreign nations are supposed to pay for their students to attend U.S. service academies, but the state and defense departments almost always granted waivers and U.S. taxpayers picked up the bill.

Naval Academy supporters -- including Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, who sit on the academy's board of visitors -- responded with efforts to restore funding to the program. But the National Defense Authorization Act approved last week upheld restrictions on the waivers.

"We would like to see that money restored. It adds a real diversity to the brigade," said Naval Academy Dean of Admissions David A. Vetter.

Vetter and others at the three schools tout the program as one that exposes students to other cultures -- and to the future military leaders of foreign nations. And they plan to continue lobbying Congress to ease the new restrictions.

Earlier this year, 13 students who had been accepted at the Naval Academy declined to attend because their countries, including Barbados, Peru, Slovenia and Tunisia, were not granted a waiver and could not or would not pay the $70,000-a-year tuition.

McCain has proposed an amendment to the pending defense appropriations bill to restore funding for foreign students. But a similar proposal died earlier this summer.

By law, 40 international students can attend each academy each year. After graduating, they return home and serve in their own nation's military and those countries are supposed to reimburse the United States for the tuition.

The only problem: the Defense Department, with nudging from the State Department, has been regularly granting waivers to all but a few willing-to-pay countries. According to a subcommittee of the House National Security Committee, 106 of 115 foreign students enrolled in 1997 had such tuition reimbursement waivers, at a cost of $7.2 million.

"That has been taken advantage of with the advice and consent of the State Department quite frequently," academy superintendent Vice Adm. John R. Ryan told members of the school's board of visitors on Monday.

Last year, 38 of the 39 foreign students at the Naval Academy received waivers. The changes initiated by Congress in May and reaffirmed last week grant five full tuition waivers annually at each school and waivers of up to 35 percent in other

"exceptional cases."

The academies fear countries will stop sending students.

"Four times 70,000 -- that's a tremendous amount of hard currency for some developing countries," said Lt. Col. Carl Daubach, director of international programs at the Air Force Academy, which also had foreign students decline admission due to their country's inability to pay the tuition.

Daubach said the most affected will be former Soviet nations, such as Estonia and Kazakhstan, which expressed interest in U.S. academies in recent years but can't afford the tuition.

"Our concern is that next year we have 12 internationals graduating and our guess is that those vacancies will increase under the current guidelines," he said. "The number of foreign students will slowly decline, particularly the numbers for developing nations."

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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