During the Cold War, American officials discovered that one of the best ways to promote democratic capitalism at the expense of communism was by luring foreign students to American colleges. Some of these foreign graduates returned home to become the leaders of reform movements in their countries. Others stayed in the United States and contributed their skills to the great postwar boom. The same reasoning that prevailed during the Cold War should prevail during the war on terror. The United States should be eager, one would imagine, to expose students from abroad to democracy and religious pluralism, as well as to take advantage of their skills. But not the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. They are oblivious to any foreign policy measures that aren't repressive. Their response to anti-Americanism is to wall off America from its potential critics.
In the wake of September 11, the Bush administration tightened visa rules for foreign students. Prospective students have had to pay a $100 fee to file a visa application. And it has taken up to eight months to process the applications. As a result, foreign applications to American colleges have plummeted. According to the Financial Times
, graduate school applications have declined 32 percent this year. "The word seems to be out that you can't get a visa to come and study in the US, so why bother," said Liz Reisburg, who helps recruit foreign MBAs.
Undoubtedly, some aspects of this new visa program were unavoidable in the light of how the September 11 terrorists entered the country. But one would hope that the Bush administration would be trying to streamline the program, and to reduce the delays, so that students would once against be drawn to American universities, as they were during the high-tech boom of the 1990s. Instead, the administration is on the verge of putting still another and greater obstacle in the face of foreign students.
The legislation establishing the Department of Homeland Security included a provision creating "Sevis." a database for keeping track of international students. Each student would have to register with the Sevis. Last October, the Department of Homeland Security proposed that in addition to the $100 visa fee, every prospective student would have to pay another $100 to fund Sevis. The payment would have to be through a credit card or dollars. Universities have not objected to the program itself; but they have objected strenuously to imposing another fee on foreign applicants. "Having yet another thing students have to do to come to the US that they don't have to do in any other part of the world will drive more people away at a time when enrollments are declining," said one official from the Association of International Educators.
The universities, of course, are understandably worried about declining enrollment, but what is most disturbing about the administration's program--and about its general approach to foreign students--is its hostile attitude toward the outside world. It's fortress America applied to educational policy. Such an approach won't necessarily prevent terrorist attacks, but it will in the long run encourage the anti-Americanism on which al Qaeda and other terrorist groups feed.