Cuts in government and philanthropic foundation funding is hitting international research, graduate study and academic exchange hard, according to a report to be released this month.
The Association of International Educators says the trend is worrying because it will damage US credibility and competitiveness at a time of greater globalisation of business and communications. It has called for a national campaign to reverse the drift and is appealing to the private sector for support.
Gail Hockhauser, the association's special programmes director, said:
"There's been a tremendous pullback from the US government and the foundations that have been channelling research funds to US higher education."
Money is going instead directly to local overseas organisations, cutting out US universities - and depriving them of an important funding source.
When projects work through US schools, Ms Hockhauser said, "staff get to consult, and there is money for things that normally don't get funded, such as helping students study abroad. That's not forthcoming, especially from the private sector."
Report author Alice Chandler, former president of the State University of New York at New Paltz, said little was being done to encourage overseas study. Barely one in ten US students is enrolled in foreign language courses.
"Governments need to realise the links between their economic development goals of increasing export trade and attracting foreign industry, and the presence of strong, internationally oriented campuses as a reservoir of expertise, a source of foreign contacts, and a catalyst for change".
Instead, US official development assistance has dropped by more than 30 per cent this decade, and universities appear to have suffered disproportionately.
Funding for the US Information Agency, which encourages educational and cultural exchanges, is down by 22 per cent in the past five years.
USIA's Fulbright programme, which pays for individual educational exchanges for 4,400 students from the United States and 140 other countries, has been cut by a quarter. The USIA is being abolished and its role taken over by the State Department.
The international educators' association plans a national conference in Denver and is calling for a campaign to increase federal support for academic exchanges and other overseas education programmes.