Dive Brief: 

  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s announcement Monday that international students must leave the country if their schools are online-only this fall could prompt some colleges to change their fall plans. 
  • Colleges could risk losing some of their international students if they’re mostly online in the fall or if they pivot to that model during the term in the event of coronavirus flare-ups, experts said
  • Higher ed groups are seeking more clarity about the policy so colleges can iron out their plans for the coming term. 

Dive Insight: 

International students, who account for around 6% of total higher ed enrollment, typically aren’t allowed to take more than one course, or three credits, online each term, but those requirements were waived earlier this year when the pandemic forced colleges nationwide to pivot to virtual instruction. 

Many higher ed leaders expected those flexibilities to continue into the next academic year and were blindsided by the new guidance. “Our institutions have been working around the clock coming up with these plans for the fall,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of global engagement for the American Council on Education. “This has just added another level of cost and complexity and risk to this whole planning process.”

A working group of representatives from “several government agencies,” helped develop the policy, an ICE spokesperson wrote in an email to Education Dive. “The group determined that three options ⁠— remote learning from outside the U.S., in-person classes and a hybrid model that combined both in-person and online classes ⁠— provided the best options for flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their studies at U.S. schools,” she wrote. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to publish the policy as a temporary final rule.  

The guidance will likely further incentivize some campuses to open this fall, said Chris Marsicano, founding director of Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, which is tracking fall reopening plans. “Institutions that really rely on international student tuition revenue are going to double down on their decisions to try to get people in person,” he said. 

Around 8% of about 1,090 tracked institutions are planning on a mostly online term this fall, according to a list kept by The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

That includes Harvard and Rutgers universities, which announced Monday they would hold most of their classes virtually in the fall. 

On the same day, ICE released its guidance saying international students couldn’t stay in the U.S. if they took only online classes. President Donald Trump also tweeted Monday that schools must reopen in the fall, though it was not clear what types of institutions he was referring to. 

“This whole policy seems to be designed to pressure colleges to be open in person,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “But not every college will be able to afford the safety precautions needed and not every state may even end up allowing their colleges to reopen.” 

In New Jersey, where Seton Hall is located, colleges aren’t yet allowed to fully reopen, though they could start in-person labs and clinical research this month. 

ICE’s guidance says the State Department will not issue student visas to international students taking all their classes online. Students enrolled in such programs in the U.S. must leave the country or transfer to a school offering in-person instruction or they could be deported.

International students attending schools offering a mix of in-person and online classes in the fall will be allowed to take more than one course online. Around one-quarter of colleges are planning on a hybrid fall term, according to The Chronicle. 

Colleges will determine the level of in-person interaction that hybrid and in-person courses require, and there is no limit to the number of online classes an international student in a hybrid program can take, the ICE spokesperson said. 

But if colleges switch to remote instruction mid-semester, which many fall plans recognize as a possibility, the policy will force international students to leave the country or transfer to another school. However, travel restrictions could make it difficult for international students to return to their home countries.

Some colleges are bringing select student groups back to campus in the fall. Bowdoin College, in Maine, will only allow first-year and transfer students, as well as those who cannot complete their studies online. 

Schools with these types of plans may also welcome international students back to campus to comply with ICE’s guidelines, Marsicano said. “The problem then is making sure that you have in-person classes for those students,” he added. 

The guidance may also spur colleges to adopt hybrid models, which international students can participate in as long as they don’t take only online courses, said Fiona McEntee, an immigration attorney. 

However, it’s still unclear what level of in-person presence will place colleges in the hybrid category and whether the public will be able to formally comment on the guidance, Farnsworth said.

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