International graduate students are cooling on the United States a new study released this week by the The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) shows. Offers of admission from U.S. graduate schools to prospective international students decreased 3% from 2008 to 2009, the first decline since 2004. More than half of responding institutions reported a decrease in international offers of admission, a decline that is founded on a major drop of 16 percent declines in offers to students from both India and South Korea. (Overall numbers would have been even lower had not Chinese students continued to show an increase in admissions for the fourth consecutive year.) This drop also meant a drop in math and science applications, which traditionally attract 61% of foreign graduate students.

The total number of international applications received in 2009 remains 5 percent below 2003 levels. The trend which started with a steep drop following visa restrictions imposed by the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had been slowed and reversed in the intervening years. But the slowdown in the world economy combined with competition from other countries like Australia and the United Kingdom meant that foreign students are staying home or looking elsewhere.

Countering this drop in foreign student interest will be important from the perspective not just of institutions of higher learning, but of U.S. public diplomacy as well — for which educational exchanges are a cornerstone. Students who have had the first-hand experience of living in the United States overwhelmingly come away with positive impressions and certainly with increased knowledge about America, its history and people.

Americans have had good reason to pride themselves on the best higher education system in the world. Counterintuitive as it might seem when political correctness is considered, American campuses can be oases of intellectual inquiry compared to even more politcized higher education systems abroad. The intellectual freedom of U.S. colleges and universities, the quality of the teaching and the variety of programs and course offerings are among the selling points that have brought foreign students to the United States in droves. Keeping that interest alive has to be a goal of educators and legislators alike.