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Viewpoint: Decline in America's Attractiveness Troubling

Xiaoxiong Yi -- America's ability to attract others by its values is in rapid decline since 9-11. And this decline in U.S. attractiveness should not be lightly dismissed.

Last month when I was in China I went to a movie theater in central Beijing. To my surprise, most of the films on offer were not American-made. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. This was not the case, however, just a couple of years ago -- then virtually all of the films shown in Chinese cinemas were American.

What is true for American movies is equally the case with American education.

"America's influence in the world," writes Marlene Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, "stems significantly from our role as an academic destination for the world's most talented students. From China to Georgia, U.S.-educated leaders approach world affairs with an understanding of, and often affection for, the America they came to know as college students. Unfortunately, we now appear to be on the cusp of a downward slide in international student numbers in this country."

According to a recent study in The Chronicle of Higher Education, applications from China to American colleges and universities have fallen by 76 percent from last year, while those from India have dropped by 58 percent. Applications to research universities from prospective international graduate students are down by at least 25 percent overall, and 90 percent of American colleges and universities are experiencing difficulties in attracting international students.

Here in Ohio, the enrollment of foreign students has also declined.

Susan Huntington, dean of the graduate school at The Ohio State University, has warned "declining number of foreign students harms Ohio." According to Huntington, in 2003, "for only the second time in 50 years, OSU enrolled fewer international students than the year before. There are signs that this trend may not be reversed in 2004. This is deeply troubling, not only for OSU, Columbus, and Ohio but also for the nation."

Overall, international travel to America is also down severely. From October 2000 to September 2001, 6.3 million people from developing nations applied for travel to America for business, pleasure or medical treatment. That number dropped to 3.7 million for the 2003 fiscal year.

In an April 21 testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said that restrictions on the entry of foreigners have prompted many to shun travel to America since 2001, citing a 30 percent decline in overseas visits to the United States over 2 1/2 years.

"This hurts us," Powell told the house committee, "it's not serving our interests. We really do have to work on it. People aren't going to take that for very long, and when the word gets out to others, they will start going elsewhere." As Homeland Security secretary, Ridge's agreement with Powell is quite significant since it is his responsibility to keep terrorists out.

What has caused such a decline in America's attractiveness? For starters, despite the decline in applications, visa rejection rates have risen -- in Beijing, for example, 63 percent of student visa applicants have been rejected, according to a recent congressional report. Clearly, visa applications must be screened. But carrying out a much tougher and restrictive post- 9/11 visa policy has been further constrained by a lack of resources and shortcomings in scanning technologies and background checks.

The combination of these factors -- an increasingly indifferent and hostile visa policy and the greater likelihood of rejection -- has only strengthened the perception that America has become less hospitable to foreigners. "So it is not surprising that fewer foreigners aspire to train at American universities and become part of the United States network of talent and innovation," says Steven Clemons, executive vice president of the New America Foundation.

America's ability to attract others by its values is in rapid decline since 9-11. And this decline in U.S. attractiveness should not be lightly dismissed. Such a decline is reducing the ability of the United States to achieve its goals without resorting to coercion or payment.

America's educational and cultural influences are a source of real power. We should encourage more, not fewer, educational, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges with the world.

As America confronts challenges around the world, we cannot afford to damage one of our major sources of influence and alienate our allies of the future.

Xiaoxiong Yi is a professor at Marietta College, Marietta, OH, and director of East Asia Initiatives. His column appears on the Opinion page of The Marietta Times.

© 2004 The Marietta Times

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