After weeks of quiet diplomacy by the US Embassy in Ashgabat, which helps to coordinate student scholarship programs, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue in talks with Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in New York in September.
According to embassy officials, President Berdimuhamedov agreed to allow AUCA students to transfer to the American University in Bulgaria. But on Oct. 2 a group attempting to fly to Sofia were stopped at the airport.
"We are dismayed by the Government of Turkmenistan's continued denial of freedom of movement," the American Embassy said in a statement.
Travel restrictions have also been working in the other direction: Recently, a contingent of 47 Peace Corps volunteers were prevented from entering Turkmenistan. US officials say privately that this incident is related to American efforts to assist the students.
The Turkmen government did not respond to requests for comment.
When President Berdimuhamedov came to power in 2007 he promised to embark on a program of reform, including improvements to the education system.
Yet Turkmen higher education still suffers from acute corruption and limited size. Some 75,000 high school graduates a year are left fighting, sometimes with bribes, for one of fewer than 5,000 domestic university spots.