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GAO Reports on Challenges in Attracting International Students and Implications for Global Competitiveness


The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released “Higher Education: Challenges in Attracting International Students to the United States and Implications for Global Competitiveness.” The report notes that more international students obtain a higher education in the U.S. than in any other country, and they make valuable contributions while they are here. For those students returning home after their studies, the GAO said, such exchanges support federal public diplomacy efforts and can improve understanding among nations. The GAO noted that international students have earned at least a-third of all U.S. degrees at both the master’s and doctoral levels in several science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Yet recent trends, including a drop in international student enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities, and policy changes after September 11, 2001, have raised concerns about whether the U.S. will continue to attract talented international students.

GAO identified the following key issues that it said may affect the U.S.’s ability to continue attracting the world’s most talented international students:

  • The global higher education landscape is changing and providing more alternatives for students, as other countries expand their educational capacity and technology-based distance learning opportunities. In addition, U.S. universities are establishing branch campuses in other countries and partnerships with international institutions, allowing international students to receive a U.S. education without leaving home. Some countries also have developed strategic plans or offices focused on attracting international students.
  • The cost of obtaining a U.S. degree is among the highest in the world and rising. Average tuition in 2003 at public U.S. colleges and universities was second only to Australia.
  • Visa policies and procedures, tightened after September 11 to protect our national security, contributed to real and perceived barriers for international students. Post-September 11 changes included a requirement that almost all visa applicants be interviewed, affecting the number of visas issued and extending wait times for visas under certain circumstances. GAO has made several recommendations to strengthen the visa process in a way that reduces barriers for international students while balancing national security, and the agency said that recent changes have improved the process.

The GAO said that the U.S. must maintain an appropriate balance between protecting national security interests and ensuring long-term competitiveness. “Monitoring current trends and federal policies is essential to ensuring that the United States continues to obtain talented international students in the face of greater global competition,” the GAO concluded.

The report, GAO-07-1047T, which contains testimony presented on June 29, 2007, before the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs, is available here.

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