The U.S. State Department has offered some indications that the chill that has limited foreign student enrollments  in the United States may be easing.
The number of Chinese students applying for visas to attend college in the United States in May and June rose by 15 percent over the comparable period last year, the department has announced. The department and university officials attributed the increase -- which suggests an end to four years of declines -- to an aggressive outreach effort aimed at altering the perception that America was unwelcoming to foreign students.
China is second only to India in the number of non-American students who enroll at American colleges, so visa trends for China are an important measure of foreign enrollments generally.
In a cable last month sent by the American Embassy in Beijing, the State Department said that its officials there had adjudicated 4,487 student visas in May and June, compared to 3,904 during the same period in 2004. The department said that U.S. consulates in four other Chinese cities had seen similar upticks during what it called the "student season" -- the prime period when foreigners seeking to study are getting their act together and applying to do so for the coming fall.
"If this trend continues, Beijing will issue more student visas in 2005 than in any of the preceding five years," the department's memo stated. It also suggested that officials representing other countries that recruit students from Beijing, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain, had not reported similarly sized increases.
The cable attributed the increase to an outreach program that it said was designed to "combat common myths, demystify the visa application process, portray the United States as the premier destination for foreign students, and reinforce the importance of bringing diversity to U.S. colleges and universities."
Following up on speeches that U.S. diplomats gave in Beijing last winter, consular officials held meetings about the visa process with thousands of students in Beijing and several other cities in the region and sponsored Web chats throughout the spring. "The message was simple: the Embassy will issue a visa to every qualified student, there are no quotas for students from China, and a student will never be denied due to his or her area of study," the department said in its cable.
Embassy officials also noted that the U.S. government had altered its rules  in June to extend to a year, from the current six months, the duration for certain American visas for Chinese citizens.
American higher education officials welcomed the State Department's news about China and said they hoped it suggested an overall warming in foreign students' perceptions of the climate for them in the United States.
"It's definitely a good faith effort on State's part, and they're doing a great job to encourage students to apply," said Amy Scott, a federal relations officer at the Association of American Universities. "Anything that will help combat the misperception that we're no longer a welcoming country is good news for universities. Maybe some of the outreach efforts can translate to other countries."