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Attracting Talent from Abroad
Despite trends, MIT draws the best international graduate students
By Sally Atwood

Ever since the USA Patriot Act became law in fall 2001, higher-education officials have been concerned that the law’s tighter security measures could serve to discourage international graduate students from enrolling in U.S. universities. Last fall, a survey conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools confirmed these fears: the number of first-year international graduate students enrolling in U.S. schools has fallen every year since 2001. Nationwide, the survey reports a 6 percent decline in enrollment in 2004 alone. That follows a 10 percent drop in 2003 and an 8 percent drop in 2002. Many fear this could signal the end of American dominance in higher education, and that the presence of fewer international students could degrade the quality of degrees from U.S. universities.

Although the Institute fared better than the national average last year, showing a modest .57 percent increase in first-year international students, the pool of applicants is down 15 percent since 2002. If that drop continues for several more years, there will be cause for concern, says Alice Gast, vice president for research. “At the top-tier institutions, we really value the mix [of students],” she says. “You get individuals with different ways of looking at problems, different ways of thinking about problems.” The numbers this year aren’t particularly alarming; however, Gast cautions, “my concern is if we’re losing the top students. We want to be able to attract the quality students that we have come to expect and enjoy.”

Nationwide, the drop in international graduate student enrollment has hit hardest in a few specific disciplines. Business programs are down by 12 percent, life sciences and agriculture by 10 percent, and engineering by 8 percent. MIT has also seen changes in these areas, though to a lesser degree than other schools. Institute statistics show that international graduate enrollment is down by 1 percent in business and 1.3 percent in engineering, yet up by 4.1 percent in life sciences. Julie Strong, associate director of MBA admissions at the Sloan School of Management, says most of the drop in that school’s overall enrollment numbers (international and domestic) is the result of the slow economy and fewer domestic applicants, rather than a drop in international students. In fact, she says the percentage of first-year international students is on the rise at Sloan, up to 36 percent in 2004. There is good news on other fronts as well. Several disciplines at MIT saw an increase in international graduate students in 2004. The humanities, social sciences, and architecture and urban design saw increases that range from 2.6 to 26 percent.

The downturn in international enrollments is beginning to show up at the undergraduate level as well. In 2004, the Institute saw a 2.7 percent decrease in international freshmen. Only 70 out of 101 admitted to MIT enrolled; two years earlier, 81 enrolled out of 103 accepted. Since international undergraduate students are capped at 8 percent of an incoming class, any drop in the numbers is of concern. “Each student is very valuable,” says Bette Johnson, associate director of admissions. “We don’t want to lose many of them.”

Overall the decline in raw numbers may be small at MIT, but it reflects a shift most educators attribute to new U.S. policies and to the globalization of education. “The perception is that the U.S. is not a welcoming place,” says Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook, director and associate dean for international students. In the first two years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, that view was warranted. Visa delays that often caused students to miss entire academic years drew media attention around the world. Now most visas can be secured in four to six weeks. However, high-level security reviews of many international students continue to lengthen the process. Those reviews can be triggered by an individual’s nationality, field of study, former employment, and general background information.

Reëntry visa delays have also contributed to the negative perception. If students whose visas have expired want to attend an international conference, they must often return to their homeland to apply for another visa to reënter the United States after the conference. “Those delays are most damaging,” says Gast. “I think they send a huge message to other students who think they’ll be stuck in the U.S.”

The negative perception has given other English-speaking countries the toehold they’ve been seeking with international students. Guichard-Ashbrook says Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have begun to aggressively recruit international students, and with some success. “Look at their statistics and their numbers have skyrocketed,” she says. Strong says Australia has become especially competitive for business students. China and Korea are rapidly improving their educational systems to encourage top students to stay at home, and European countries are remaking their graduate programs—modeled on U.S. PhD programs—to make them more attractive to international students.

Still, MIT remains in the enviable position of attracting the best and enrolling most of those it admits, regardless of country of origin. Concern about international graduate student issues has claimed the attention of top administrators. Departments now provide award letters quickly and send documents overnight so students can start the visa process early. And faculty concerned about international travel for their students work with Guichard-Ashbrook to minimize problems. Although only the future will reveal whether educators’ concerns are merited, Gast believes that MIT’s reputation, its high-quality programs, and its welcoming environment will continue to draw the best students from abroad. Arthur Smith, chair of the committee on graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science, agrees. “We’ll never see a drop in quality until the numbers are very small,” he says, and the chances of that happening at MIT are slim indeed.

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