Foreign Students Looking Abroad?

December 6, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Patrick Rea recently read from one of Germany's largest newspapers when presenting a Small Business Administration study, "21st Century Jobs and Entrepreneurship in the Midwest."

Rea, the SBA's Region V administrator, cited a report by the Frankfurter Allgemeine that one in seven German doctorates move to the United States, and 30 percent of them stay there.

It also noted three-fourths of German Nobel Prize winners work in the United States.

According to an Allgemeine editorial, the United States has 20,000 academics from China, Japan and Germany. It reported that foreign academics perform 50 percent of all U.S.-based research and that half of master's and doctoral candidates at U.S. Universities are foreigners. Too, more than 500,000 foreign students are enrolled at U.S. universities.

Although Rea didn't mention it, the National Science Board also found this year that 38 percent of the doctorate holders in the U.S. work force are foreign-born.

Rea explained that the Allgemeinesaw this as an exportation of Germany's intellectual capital, and the editorial had a simple message for its readers in the academic community: Stay home.

"This is particularly meaningful to me," Rea said. "All the information you're seeing today was compiled by a pair of graduate students on loan from the University of Munich."

Now, with help from the U.S. Department of State, the Frankfurt newspaper appears to be getting its wish.

Last month, the Institute of International Education's annual report on academic mobility, "Open Doors 2004," detailed the first decline in foreign enrollments since 1971 as the number of international students decreased by 2.4 percent to a total of 572,509 in the 2003-04 school year.

After five years of steady growth and a slight (0.6 percent) increase the previous year, the past academic year saw undergraduate declines in every type of institution for a total of almost 5 percent, offset partially be a 2.5 percent rise of international students at the graduate level.

Undergraduate enrollments from each of the top five sending countries declined: — China, 20 percent, India 9 percent, Japan, 14 percent, Korea, 1 percent and Canada, 3 percent. Associate degree institutions reported the steepest drop in foreign student enrollment, 10 percent. LocallyGrandRapidsCommunity College sustained a 17 percent decline in foreign students, the sharpest ever.

The report suggests a number of possible reasons for the decline: real and perceived difficulty in obtaining student visas, rising U.S. tuition costs, vigorous recruiting by other English-speaking nations, and perceptions abroad that foreign students may no longer be welcome in the United States

While the IIE report expressed concerns that fewer undergraduates today will mean a future decrease in graduate students, just as worrisome is the concern that the past year's slight increase in graduate students was driven by a large spike within master's programs.

Large research/doctoral institutions — which host 70 percent of all foreign graduate students in the United States — showed a decrease in foreign student enrollment, with 15 of the top 25 hosts reporting losses.

"That was fairly alarming to the people in the international education field," explained Mark Schaub of the PadnosInternationalCenter at GrandValleyStateUniversity. "It naturally benefits us having the best and brightest from around the world coming to participate in research projects."

As GVSU's student body continues to grow, its international student population has not changed, and represents less than one percent of  enrollment.

"We are interested in raising that and attracting more international students," Schaub said. "Typically they are attracted to the research institutions recognized overseas. The Michigans and MichganStates are known overseas for good reason, primarily through their research and graduate programs.

"Having the world's best students helps to raise the bar for the Michigan-based students and faculty, and ideally we want them to stay here and join the workforce."

Much of GVSU's international efforts are based on sending U.S. students overseas, something that more GVSU students will do this year than ever before. Through this relationship, Schaub has heard much grumbling from the international community.

"The perception out there is that the United States is not the place to go," he said. "The other institutions all say the same thing, 'We're sending our students to Australia or Canada.'"

Schaub paraphrased a recent statement by Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek's international editor, "We're trying to keep out the next Muhammad Atta, but we're really keeping out the next Bill Gates."

Jeff Meyer, executive director of the Van Andel Global Trade Center at GVSU, explained that a decline in foreign interest could be two-fold. First, would be the direct and indirect monetary implications to research institutions losing international student tuition and declining research programs. Second would the cost within academia and business from loss of desire to study or do business in the United States

According to the Department of Commerce, international students brought over $13 billion to the U.S. economy in money spent on tuition, living expenses and related costs. That number could pale if international business and academia decides it's not worth crossing U.S. borders.

"If the talent overseas starts believing that it's so hard to come here, they're going to start asking if they want to come here," Meyer said. "Not being able to get the right people into the country will put a hitch in many companies' business models. But what if those people just decide they'd rather go somewhere else?

"Locally, we're trying to attract top-level foreign talent for cancer research," he said. "And that will become a lot harder if they decide they don't want to come into the country."

One local school appears to be bucking the trend.

CalvinCollege is continuing to see increases in numbers of international students. With 9.5 percent of its student body of international origin, Calvin has more than twice as many foreign students as GVSU. More than half of those — 213 students — are from overseas.

Calvin provost Joel Carpenter cites strong relationships through the Christian reformed church with institutions in West Africa and South Korea as providing international enrollment pipelines, while fair and friendly financial aid practices have added to the school's attractiveness.

All Calvin professors are expected to conduct research in addition to teach, and the international students are eager to participate.

"Because we don't have any large graduate programs, the undergrads are going to be the research assistants," Carpenter said.

"Through our research here, we hope to prepare students to move onto bigger things," said biology professor David DeHeer. "We want to get the younger students ready to go to bigger places like the Van Andel Institute."

Already an institution with many scientific investigators from overseas, VAI welcomed two more by way of CalvinCollege this year.

Ghana-born Timothy Bediako worked with DeHeer for two years researching cellular causes of artificial joint failure. As a senior, Bediako progressed into an internship at VAI, and since graduation has become a full-time VAI researcher.

Next year, Bediako will pursue a PhD, after which he will take his education back home to Ghana. His younger brother is now a Calvin freshman.

Calvin senior Dare Odumosu, of Nigeria, is also a VAI research assistant, with intentions to attend medical school after graduation.

The declining trend may stabilize in the coming year, as student visa issuances for January through June 2004 increased by 11 percent over the same six-month period in 2003, according to a statement by Patricia Harris, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.     

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