Since 9/11, colleges and universities in the United States have experienced unprecedented drops in the enrollment of foreign students -- at a time when other countries have moved to attract more foreign students. While there are signs of a rebound  in the numbers, many experts on international education remain worried that the United States is losing the dominance it has held since World War II as the desired place for the best and brightest of the world to seek an education.
As concern over the issue has grown, many educators have found the Bush administration indifferent or hostile. But in what some see as a significant move, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, recently invited about 70 college and university presidents to a private meeting in Washington the first week of January. While an official agenda has not been released, a dual focus is expected on how to attract more foreign students to the United State and how to encourage more American students to get part of their education abroad.
"This meeting is unprecedented, badly needed, and very welcome," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. Ward said that he thought the meeting would be valuable in allowing colleges to offer ideas, but also in finding out how colleges could be more helpful in training students to meet emerging national needs.
Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said the meeting was important because "the United States sorely needs national policies to restore its reputation as a magnet for international students."
State Department officials, while confirming that the meeting will take place, declined to discuss who had been invited or specifics of the agenda, saying that announcement would be forthcoming.
Among the presidents who will be attending are Richard Broadhead of Duke University, Mary Sue Coleman of the University of Michigan, Robert Hemenway of the University of Kansas, John L. Hennessy of Stanford University, Hunter R. Rawlings III of Cornell University, Lou Anna Simon of Michigan State University, and Mark S. Wrighton of Washington University in St. Louis. While the attendees confirmed by Inside Higher Ed are all from research universities, a State Department spokesman said that the participants would come from a range of different types of colleges.
While the meeting is officially being organized by the State and Education Departments, the interest of the State Department is seen by college officials as especially important. Colleges remain concerned that the Defense Department and other agencies continue to push policies -- such as a much-criticized proposal  that would require some foreign students to wear special badges and work in segregated areas -- that would damage the reputation of American higher education. So the involvement of officials with significant clout in the Bush administration means a lot to academics.
Within the State Department, the push on the issue comes from Rice, a former Stanford provost, and Karen Hughes, a confidant of President Bush who is now under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. In testimony  at a House of Representatives hearing last month, she said she was working with Rice on a plan to increase the study of Chinese and Arabic at American colleges. She also said that it was essential that the United States attract more foreign students.
"America now faces competition from many other counties to attract foreign students," Hughes said. "We must be more effective in encouraging them to come here, and we have to work to dispel lingering perceptions from the year after September 11 about student visas. We've made great improvement in overcoming delays and we want young people across the world to know we welcome them and want them to come to America."
Amy Scott, a federal relations officer for the Association of American Universities, said she thought there was "real commitment" by the State Department to work on the issue. Foreign students contribute to the competitiveness of the United States economically, she said, "and the word that continues to buzz around Washington is 'competitiveness,' " so there is reason to hope for political support on these issues, Scott said.
"I think people realize that we are in competition for the best and the brightest," she said.
Ward said that he hoped the meeting would lead to progress on a number of fronts:
- Identifying areas of "broad mutual interest" among colleges and federal agencies for expanded educational offerings at American colleges. "To pick just one topic, I wish we had 10 times as many people fluent in Arabic and Chinese," Ward said.
- Developing ways to attract more foreign students from countries where the United States has suffered particular declines. Ward said one model might be for embassies to work with clusters of American colleges that might be especially attractive to students in a given country.
- Working on remaining problems with foreign students obtaining visas for study in the United States. Ward said that the State Department has been "extremely accommodating," but that there are still problems at the "nitty gritty" level. "We are walking on a tightrope of security and access to education," he said.
- Creating programs to encourage more American students to study abroad.