International Students Welcome in America, Officials Say

By Louise Fenner
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – The United States wants to provide more opportunities for international students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to attend U.S. colleges and universities, says State Department official Thomas Farrell.

The key message to international students is that “we want you to come here” and that “building a financial package for talented students is something we are expert at,” he told a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing June 29.

Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, the hearing chairman, said the United States needs to get the word out that the visa process for students has improved.  The number of student and exchange visitor visas issued in fiscal year 2006 rose 15 percent to an all-time high of 591,050, according to the State Department.  (See related article.)

Delahunt said it is in the national interest to make U.S. higher education available to more young people overseas who could become leaders and partners in addressing the world's problems.

Visiting students have a chance to know “the real America, as opposed to the one that is perceived on the nightly news,” he said.

Rather than visas, the biggest challenge for international students is the cost of higher education, said Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  Currently, 78 percent of international students rely on their families and personal resources, he said.  Another problem is lack of English language ability, particularly among disadvantaged populations, Farrell added.

It is “an important strategic priority … to provide educational opportunities to a broad and diverse segment of young people overseas, including women, minorities and those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds,” he said.

The State Department has numerous programs to strengthen English learning overseas and bring more students to the United States, such as the pilot Opportunity Grants Initiative, which covers certain expenses such as college application fees and travel for students “who could not otherwise afford to accept merit-based scholarships” offered by U.S. institutions.

But Farrell stressed that the academic, business and nonprofit sectors also have an important stake in promoting the United States as “the destination of choice” for international students and researchers. 

American academic institutions deserve much credit for reaching out to international students via scholarships, grants and loans, and cost-sharing with the government, he said, adding that “we would not have the Fulbright program we have today were it not for [the State Department’s] long-term partnership” with colleges and universities.

Farrell cited other challenges to attracting foreign students, such as competition from other countries. 

Although the number of international students in the United States dropped after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, it stabilized over the past two years (at 570,000 annually) “and the current trend lines … are all up,” Farrell said.  The number of international researchers and scholars is 97,000, an all-time high.

The State Department has EducationUSA advising centers worldwide, as well as a Web site, that can advise prospective international students on U.S. study opportunities and financial assistance.

The full text of Farrell’s prepared testimony is available on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Web site.

For more information on U.S. policy, see Visas and Immigration.