U.S. Colleges Urged To Improve Access For Disadvantaged International Students, Particularly Africans

U.S. colleges are beginning to reverse the decline in international student enrollment that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But the key to future growth may be the ability to attract lower-income and disadvantaged foreign students, including those from Africa, witnesses told a House hearing Friday.

A top U.S. priority must be to “provide educational opportunities to a broad and diverse segment of young people overseas, including women, minorities and those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Thomas Farrell, assistant secretary of state for academic programs. Many of these students want to study in the United States but lack the resources to do so, he told a joint meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House higher education subcommittee.

One major factor is the high cost of U.S. higher education, which is more expensive than college in other industrialized countries. “We believe that cost of U.S. higher education is the most significant barrier to building back our higher education international student numbers,” Farrell said.

Overall, nearly 80 percent of international students pay for a U.S. college education through family or personal resources, which often skews enrollment in favor of more affluent families, he said.

Despite these factors, several initiatives are under way to increase the number of lower-income international students studying in the United States. According to Farrell, State Department officials met with U.S. community college leaders last year to launch one of these new efforts. That initiative is focusing on students from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East who can afford less costly two-year institutions.

College also are using Title VI grants under the Higher Education Act to expand partnerships in Africa, said James Manning, the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education. The University of Florida’s Center for African Studies has hired African graduate students as teaching assistance to expand African language programs.

Such initiatives drew praise from U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., a senior lawmaker on the Foreign Affairs panel. “If we focus on Africa, we can have success,” he said.

But recent declines in foreign student enrollment remain a concern, several participants said. After dramatic growth in the 1990s, the number of international students attending U.S. colleges declined in 2003 for the first time in 30 years, said George Scott, the director of education, workforce and income security at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Despite an increase in international student enrollment this year, growth remains flat for the decade. Some of this is due to new policies that required longer waits for student visas and personal interviews between the U.S. government and foreigners wanting to study in the U.S.

The State Department has shortened some of those visa delays, Scott said, adding that there still are “real and perceived barriers” for international students seeking U.S. study.

Even with those challenges, however, international students continue to earn a high percentage of degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. In 2003, international students earned 45 percent to 57 percent of all STEM degrees awarded in the U.S., Scott said.

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