By Ernie Tretkoff
Physics departments reported fewer problems with foreign students getting visas in 2004 than two years earlier, according to a recent study by the AIP Statistical Research Center.
About half of PhD-granting departments reported at least one admitted student had been denied a visa or significantly delayed in fall 2004, down from about two-thirds of departments reporting such problems in fall 2002.
The AIP report also found that foreign students made up a smaller fraction of the total first-year graduate student enrollment in 2004. The percentage of first-year students from outside the United States declined from a peak of 55% in the 2000-2001 academic year to about 43% in fall 2004.
While it might be tempting to attribute this drop in the percentage of foreign students to visa problems, in fact, it is probably due mostly to an increased number of American candidates. The actual number of foreign first year graduate students declined only slightly in the past few years, from 1485 in the fall of 2000 to 1294 in the fall of 2004, while the number of US students rose from 1228 in the fall of 2000 to 1746 in the fall of 2004.
“Anecdotally, departments reported a greater number of qualified US applicants,” said Patrick Mulvey of the AIP Statistical Research Center. Mulvey also pointed out that physics bachelor’s degree production in the US has also increased in recent years, which tends to lead to an increase in the number of US students entering physics graduate school.
Since 9/11, there has been concern about the potential impact of stricter visa regulations and greater delays on physics departments. These concerns prompted the AIP Statistical Research Center to survey 248 US physics departments both in 2002 and again in 2004.
Overall, the report estimates that in the fall of 2004, 12% of accepted foreign students were delayed or at least initially prevented from gaining entry into a physics department because of complications insecuring a visa. This is down from approximately 20% in 2002.
Amy Flatten, APS Director of International Affairs, says, “There is some indication that the departments of State and Homeland Security are making progress in improving the visa process.” The processing time for “Visa Mantis” review, the clearance required for students and researchers in many scientific fields, has declined significantly, Flatten points out. “Almost all cases are completed in less than thirty days now,” she says. “In the fall of 2003, the average case took over 70 days to clear the Visa Mantis system.
The AIP report also notes that, “despite the difficulty many international students encounter in securing a visa to enter the United States in recent years, declines in the absolute number of foreign first-year physics graduate students have not been as great as one might expect.” First-year enrollment for fall 2004 foreign students fell 3% from 2002, and 13% since 2000.
Though many departments reported at least one visa problem, the relative impact on physics departments is not spread evenly, according to the report. While the larger and higher-ranked physics departments reported greater absolute numbers of students denied entry, the smaller and lower-ranked departments had a larger proportion of their international students affected. Smaller departments also tend to have more trouble compensating for the loss of a small number of admitted students.
A delay or denial of a foreign student’s visa can cause problems for the department, including disruptions to enrollment in graduate-level classes and a shortage of teaching and research assistants. But visa problems can be devastating to the affected students, the AIP report states, because the students have often already made plans to come to the United States, and may have already passed up other opportunities.
New students were not the only ones affected by visa problems. About 60 percent of PhD departments reported that currently enrolled foreign students had difficulty getting return visas after leaving the United States to travel to other countries.
Departments varied in how they responded to the visa problems. Most reported that they would continue as before in seeking and admitting foreign students. Some departments said that they would admit more foreign students to offset the number delayed or denied entry, while others reported accepting fewer non-citizens in order to avoid possible visa problems and uncertainty. In addition, “some departments indicated that they were starting the application procedures earlier,” said Mulvey.
Although fewer foreign students were delayed or denied visas in 2004 than two years earlier, visa problems continue to occur. “The 2004 data show that a substantial number of foreign candidates continue to be impeded by the heightened stringency in visa regulations,” the report states.
Flatten concurs. “There is still much work to be done on a number of visa issues,” she says.
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff