September 15, 2011
Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, I was on a Thai Airlines flight heading back home to Los Angeles after a successful two-week fact finding trip to South Korea and Japan. I had met with representatives at the South Korean and Japanese Ministries of Education, visited and toured schools and universities in each country and was returning to the States with a head and suitcase full of up-to-date information ready to share with my colleagues at ACEI. The tragic events of 9/11, the crashing of the planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, all happened while I was 30,000 ft up in the air with hundreds of passengers oblivious to what was taking place down below. Like everyone else we had no idea what impact the events of that tragic day would have on us, on our country and the world.
I’d left the States at a time when the flow of international students into the US to study at our colleges and universities was at a steady high. At ACEI, we had seen a continuous growth in our application numbers since our inception in 1994 and were preparing ourselves for expansion. But within one week of my return, in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, the steady flow of international students came to a screeching halt. Our daily number of applications for evaluation dropped by 50%, forcing us to take drastic measures such as lay offs, and scrapping our plans for growth. We realized that if we were feeling the direct impact of the terrorist attacks, then our colleagues at U.S. colleges and universities were experiencing it too. International students were just too afraid to come to the U.S. Visa requirements at U.S. Embassies abroad became stricter. Newly enforced travel restrictions deterred the once care-free travelers. And, other countries like Australia, Canada and the UK saw the opportunity and began opening their doors offering incentives to the previously U.S. college-bound international students, attracting them instead to their academic institutions.
A shift had happened. Changing Visa policies, global competition in education, and shifting international perception of the U.S. have played a part in impacting the current and future flow of international students. In those post-9/11 months and subsequent years, we saw a significant drop in applications from S. Korea, China and India and most notably from the Middle East. According to a 2007 report “Foreign Students Coming to America: The Impact of Policy, Procedures, and Economic Competition,” by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, “following a period of sustained growth, the number of foreign students coming to America declined in 2002 and the numbers did not begin to rebound strongly until 2005.” The report confirms that at first much of the decline was due to America’s immigration policies (tightened security procedures and visa policies). The 2001 economic recession that occurred simultaneous with the immediate aftershock of 9/11 affected the source countries from sending their international students to the U.S who found the admissions policies of U.S. colleges and high cost of education not as attractive as those offered by the new competitors in countries like Canada, UK, and Australia.
We cannot ignore the fact that other countries have stepped in and filled the void that had once been occupied by U.S. higher education. We need to start a national debate on the role of our government in fostering the competitiveness of the U.S. in attracting and retaining international students. An isolationist and xenophobic stand on this subject has already placed us in a disadvantage and the longer we wait the harder it will be to regain our competitiveness as leaders in higher education.
Let’s start the discussion. What are you thoughts on this topic? What do you think we must do?
Alan A. Saidi
Sr. VP & COO, ACEI, Inc.