Out of Africa (to American Colleges?)

July 2, 2007

Efforts by higher education and the federal government to attract international students to the United States are largely focused on Asia and Europe and should shift to Africa and Latin America, some lawmakers and witnesses argued before a House of Representatives panel on Friday.

At a hearing on the role of international students and visiting scholars in American universities, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D.-Mass.), chair of the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, stressed his desire to see international student recruiting aimed increasingly at students from developing countries and continents.

“I think we’ve got to be prepared to make a major investment,” he said. “Africa, Latin America are exactly where our focus should be from a public diplomacy effort.”

Delahunt wants the United States to dominate the international educational options for Africans and Latin Americans. He fears that “the future for Africa and the Africa of tomorrow in terms of the leadership in all sectors, political, economic, etc., could very well be China rather than the United States.” He later added, “Clearly, I can relate to you that the Europeans are focused on [recruiting students from] Africa.”

Thomas A. Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said his department is “at a tipping point with Congress’s ability to help us with Africa and higher education.”

With modest improvements in African health care, primary education and literacy, brought about in part through help from the Bush administration, Farrell said, “we’re reaching a point in Africa where we can actually say on the higher education side and the exchange side, it’s not just your elite person.… We are now going to be able to seriously engage a wider and more diverse group of people” in higher education.

He noted that the State Department has included money for programs to encourage the postsecondary education of African students in its 2008 federal budget proposal, alluding to plans for the department to more actively court these students to American colleges and universities. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes have already begun similar programs in China, India and several other countries that send sizable contingents of international students to the United States.

Recruiting students from Africa and Latin America was one topic in a wide-ranging hearing that also included testimony on the difficulty international students and visiting scholars have in securing visas because of the security checks put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Negative perceptions of the United States that became harsher in the attacks' aftermath have only begun to subside and again make the country an attractive and welcoming place for students and scholars from abroad.

While the United Kingdom, Australia, France and several other countries have seen gains of tens of thousands of international students in the last four years, the United States is only now returning to its pre-2001 level, said Marlene M. Johnson, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Jessica M. Vaughan, senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, said that while international student visa issuances and enrollment numbers have rebounded, gains have been limited by region. Thirty percent fewer visas are being issued to African students than were before 2001 and half as many are being issued to Latin American students, she said. “That that tells me it does have less to do with the visa process and more to do with the efforts that the higher education industry has undertaken to address the foreign competition issue and the cost issues and so on.”

Though American colleges and universities have long been perceived as some of the world’s best, other countries are catching up in quality and offering lower-cost educations to foreign students. The result, Delahunt said, is that the United States is increasingly at a “comparative disadvantage” in attracting students, a disadvantage he wants to figure out how to reverse.

One major challenge in attracting international students is the high cost of tuition at American colleges and universities, public and private. Rep. Bobby Scott (D.-Va.) said that “the vast, overwhelming majority” of international students depend on financing from their parents, their home governments or loans to pay for U.S. higher education.

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