Student visas harder to get

Colleges, universities await effect of attacks on foreign enrollment

`Valuable economic asset'

November 14, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In a sunny classroom at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, students from Korea, Peru, Belgium and elsewhere consider: Is it better English to say, "I am married with Bob," or "... married to Bob?"

A South Florida flight school this is not. But in the eyes of some U.S. State Department officials, it might as well be.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, at least a dozen foreign students who had been planning to attend Notre Dame's English Language Institute have failed to obtain visas at American embassies in their home countries. In all, the institute is missing 20 of the 70 students it was expecting this fall -- and the revenue those students would bring.

"Even students in countries like Germany and France are having problems," said institute director Noella Kim. "The State Department says it's business as usual, but it's not. No one wants a terrorist to get through on their watch."

Around Maryland and the rest of the country, colleges are waiting anxiously to see whether stricter visa reviews at American embassies abroad, along with foreign students' fears of terrorism in the United States, will lower international student enrollments.

For colleges, the stakes are high. Nearly 12,000 foreign students are enrolled in Maryland colleges and universities, and the majority of them pay full tuition. An association of Maryland's international studies directors estimates foreign students contribute $304 million a year to state colleges and the towns in which they live.

At the state's larger research-oriented schools, such as the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the instructor ranks are filled with foreign graduate students. And at smaller schools, from Salisbury University to Notre Dame, international students provide much-needed diversity.

"They're a valuable economic asset, not just to the universities but the surrounding communities as well," said Dean Esslinger, associate vice president for academic affairs at Towson University, which counts 829 foreign students among its 13,000 undergraduates.

Many colleges say it's too early to tell whether the post-Sept. 11 climate will make it harder for foreigners to study in the United States. Most students here now arrived before the attacks, and most seeking to enroll next fall won't apply for their visas until spring.

"At this point, we're simply aware there are going to be greater restrictions," said George Cathcart, a spokesman at the University of Maryland, College Park, which has 3,711 foreign students in a student body of 32,000. "We're certainly concerned about it."

Much depends on what happens in Washington, where Congress is considering several bills to tighten restrictions on student visas, which account for 2 percent of all temporary visas issued. One of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks entered the United States on a student visa but did not report to school.

A move is under way to accelerate the creation of a computer database that would track student visa holders in the country; it was originally scheduled to debut in 2003. A bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, would, among other things, require background checks of all applicants for student visas and ban visas for students from countries that sponsor terrorism.

A less restrictive measure offered by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, would rely on colleges to report foreign students who fail to enroll to immigration officials.

Colleges and universities are lobbying for the Kennedy-Brown- back bill, saying that background checks would take too much time and that the electronic tracking system should be enough to ensure that those here with student visas are actually studying. If applying for U.S. visas becomes too difficult, administrators warn, foreign students may head elsewhere, like England and Australia, which recruit aggressively.

"We think [Kennedy-Brown- back] is a balanced approach to border security," said Marlene Johnson, director of the Association of International Educators. "It's reasonable in terms of what universities can manage."

In the meantime, there is no clear sign that embassy officials abroad are enforcing existing visa rules more stringently, said Victor C. Johnson, the association's associate executive director. Even before Sept. 11, the State Department routinely rejected student visa requests, he said, especially from students in poor countries who were seen as likely to stay in the United States after college.

Still, international students at Notre Dame's language institute say there has been a definite change in approach at foreign embassies since Sept. 11. When Amanda Moura, 27, applied for a student visa in Brazil last year, she got it without having to interview at the embassy.

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