Charlie Bankart, the associate vice provost for international affairs at the University of Kansas, is worried.

The new academic term at his institution begins in August, and he fears many of the 500-odd international freshman students admitted won’t arrive in time due to visa issuance delays by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

He’s not the only one concerned. Leaders at Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale and several other colleges, along with those at higher ed associations, are also concerned. So much so that they’ve written to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Secretary of State and Congress, urging them to expedite visa issuances by the USCIS or else face a precipitous decline in the flow of international talent to the U.S. in the years to come.

Enrollment of new international students in U.S. colleges is already trending downward. For undergraduates, new enrollments fell 2.9% from their peak in 2015-16 to 2016-17 and again by 6.9% the year after that. Graduate new enrollments are following a similar trend, down 6.8% from their high point in 2015-16 to 2017-18, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

Falling enrollments hit colleges’ bottom lines and also affect their local communities. The more than 1 million international students currently in the U.S. pitch in $39 billion to the economy and support as many as 455,000 U.S. jobs despite accounting for just 5.5% of higher ed enrollment in the country, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

That’s why university leaders are so worried.

Harvard, in a letter dated July 16 to State and the DHS, said that “postponements and disruptions for what have previously been routine immigra­tion processes” are of “deep concern.” A day before Harvard’s letter, the American Council on Education (ACE) voiced similar concerns, writing that “the current lack of clarity makes it more challenging for [U.S.] schools to globally compete for international students.”

Student, faculty work ‘hindered’

International students admitted for the fall semester are seeing delays as long of as six to eight weeks to get their F-1 student visas, U of Kansas’ Bankart told Education Dive.

Students who applied for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program are also facing issuance delays of as long as five months, higher ed leaders say. The OPT provision allows F-1 visa holders to stay in the U.S. for one to three years after graduation in order to work in their field of study.

It’s a big draw for international students. By 2018, the number of STEM graduates alone opting to take advantage of OPT was up 400% from 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. Non-stem OPT participants increased by 49%. (OPT lets STEM graduates stay in the U.S. for up to three years.)

Visa delays for OPT applicants will cause them to lose out on crucial job opportunities that would have rounded out classroom learning with hands-on work experience, something academics say is vital for holistic education.