Dive Brief: 

  • New international students will not be able to enter the U.S. for college if they are taking only online classes, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Friday. 
  • The agency is also extending earlier guidance that allows international students who were enrolled in a U.S. institution by March 9 to enter or stay in the country even if they are taking a fully remote courseload. 
  • The announcement comes more than a week after ICE said it would rescind a widely-panned policy that threatened to deport international students who didn’t take at least one in-person class. 

Dive Insight:

Colleges won a victory earlier this month when the agency said it would rescind its directive and return to guidance issued in March, which gives international students more flexibility to take online courses during the pandemic. 

But even as colleges reveled in the news, they braced for a replacement requirement that would limit international student enrollment. “This is basically a student ban 2.0,” said Jenny Lee, an education policy professor at the University of Arizona. 

ICE stopped short of issuing a new rule but said new international students wouldn’t be able to enter the country if they were taking their courses entirely online. An ICE spokesperson did not answer questions emailed Friday but referred Education Dive to an FAQ and two other documents on its website about the policy. 

The agency may not have issued a formal rule, which typically requires at least a 30-day public comment period, because it likely doesn’t have enough time before fall term starts, said Bill Hing, a professor of law and migration studies at the University of San Francisco. 

However, the U.S. State Department has jurisdiction over consulates and, therefore, issuing visas. “They can just tell the consular officials, the visa officers, ‘Don’t issue these visas,'” Hing said. 

Some colleges prepared for this possibility. This week, Harvard and the University of Southern California  which are preparing for a mostly virtual fall  told their new international students not to come to campus. Although Harvard mulled offering some in-person courses so students could enter the country, campus officials decided that approach could jeopardize international students’ ability to enter or leave the U.S. amid the pandemic and uncertainty over government policies, the Boston Business Journal reported

The new policy will likely put “considerable pressure” on smaller and less-resourced colleges to offer some in-person instruction, Lee said. President Donald Trump has been pushing for K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions to reopen this fall. 

ICE’s announcement also comes just days after 18 attorneys general alleged in court documents that the agency hasn’t done enough to fully rescind its earlier directive and reimplement the March guidance. The plaintiffs say international students were denied visas as recently as Tuesday because they didn’t have evidence that they were taking in-person classes. 

Although the guidance will likely discourage some international students from coming to the U.S., that’s a “small kernel” of the “constant damage done by the current administration,” said Ryan Allen, an education professor at Chapman University, in California. Since Trump took office, Allen added, he’s issued “pretty unfriendly and outright hostile policies toward this population.” 

That includes a travel ban on visitors from several predominantly-Muslim countries  the third version of which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court  and tougher visa restrictions on certain Chinese students. 

Experts say international students who are taking classes hosted by U.S. colleges from their home countries could run into several hurdles. 

Students in Iran could be particularly affected by enrollment restrictions, said Mehrnoush Yazdanyar, an immigration attorney. That’s because current sanctions against Iran prohibit most U.S. universities from exporting educational services related to nonhumanitarian studies to the country unless they apply for a license, she said. 

Moreover, some countries, such as China, have internet restrictions that the U.S. doesn’t have, which could make it difficult for students to complete some coursework. Synchronous classes could be hard to attend because of vast time zone differences. And some students don’t live in areas that support high-speed Internet. 

While issues such as time zone differences may not be “completely disastrous,” Allen said, “the small things add up to encourage students to say, ‘Why am I even doing this?'”

New international student enrollment has been declining for three years, according to data kept by the Institute of International Education. And rising tensions with China, which provides the U.S. with one-third of its international students, are likely to cause further drops, experts say. 

“We’re seeing continual attacks on international higher education,” Lee said. “I do not believe this will be the last.”

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