$7.75m help for Asians

An American family foundation has stepped forward to bankroll a multi-million dollar emergency loan programme to help Asian students through their countries' economic crises.

The Freeman Foundation, based in Vermont, has put up $7.75 million for zero-interest loans for students from Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia attending US universities.

Its chairman, Houghton Freeman, was born in China and has lived in Japan. "For these young people to abandon their US education would be deplorable," he told a Washington press conference.

The programme will be run by the New York-based Institute of International Education, and is limited to students already enrolled in US colleges. While universities have already made "heroic efforts", it aims to "fill the gaps" until the Asian economies bounce back, said David Arnold, acting president of the IIE.

Since March 1997 the value of the Indonesian rupiah against the dollar has dropped by 70 per cent and the currencies of the three other countries by about a third.

Some 77,000 students from these nations, who make up nearly a quarter of the foreign student population in the US, have been "profoundly affected" in terms of their ability to pay for their education, the IIE says.

An estimated 10 per cent - 7-8,000 - have abandoned their studies this spring, with a higher proportion, closer to 20 per cent, of the South Koreans.

Early evidence suggests, however, that the drop in the US was not as steep as feared initially. Some universities report that in any given year they lose about 7 per cent of their overall enrolment.

While foreign students are said to contribute $3 billion a year to the economy, their fees may not be as important in cash-flow terms to US universities, which already rely heavily on student fees, as they are to some in Britain.

"The economic benefit is of secondary importance to the value they add to the educational experience of American students and to international diversity on US college campuses, and the benefit they gain from the opportunity to study here," said Mr Arnold.

The Clinton administration has already promised that the visa status of Asian students whose education is stalled because of lack of funds will not be jeopardised. And, like the UK government, it is promising help to the most hard-pressed.

The IIE programme is called Asian Students In America - Higher Education Loan Program, or ASIA-HELP. Loans will initially go to 1,400 students over two years, varying from $2,000 to $5,000 in size. It calls for 1,000 students to be nominated by universities that enrol 50 or more students from the four countries, with 50 more names offered by the governments of each country.

It will aim to be fast, simple, and speedy, relying on the good faith of students to repay, said Mr Arnold.

The big question in the US, as elsewhere, is how the Asian slump will affect applications and admissions in the new academic year beginning this autumn.

That is why "this kind of initiative is so timely and important, in that it recognises the beginning of a much larger problem," Mr Arnold said.

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