WASHINGTON — New international college students — incoming first-year undergraduates and graduate students and the like — won’t be allowed to come to the U.S. this fall if their courses are only online, President Donald Trump’s administration said in guidance issued Friday.
Students from abroad who had enrolled in spring classes and already had student visas may remain in the country or come back after summer vacation, even if their university is offering only digital classes.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s guidance comes after a bitter dispute between the nation’s colleges and the federal government. It’s a clarification of previous guidance, but it’s likely to prompt complaints and a scheduling scramble from some universities.
A previous rule from Trump’s administration would have effectively barred international students from the country if their university only offered digital classes because of the coronavirus pandemic. Several universities, including Harvard and MIT, filed a lawsuit trying to stop the order from being enforced. In an abrupt reversal, the administration withdrew that rule after public backlash, before ever defending it in court.
Traditionally — when there’s not a pandemic —international students have been barred from taking more than one online course each semester. ICE allowed foreign students to stay in the U.S. when classes went online in March, but has feuded with universities about what to do about students now that colleges are again going online this fall, as the pandemic persists.
The guidance issued Friday makes it clear that new international students looking to study in America will need to enroll in an institution offering at least some in-person classes, even if their veteran peers can take only online courses. ICE did say new international students would likely be able to enroll at universities that were offering a mixture of in-person and online classes, and they can stay in the country if their college switches to online-only instruction in the middle of the semester.
The guidance will likely be disruptive to universities. These institutions often try to recruit international students because they provide cultural diversity and often pay full-price tuition.
And as the fall semester draws closer, more and more institutions have announced plans to offer only digital instruction due to the continued spread of coronavirus nationally. Given their population density — with crowded classrooms, dorms and dining facilities — college campuses are especially susceptible to the rapid transmission of the virus.
Some universities, including Harvard and the University of Southern California, had already told their first-year international students they would be unable to come to the U.S. during the fall because of the ICE policy. They encouraged these students to start online or to defer the beginning of their studies.
“We are exploring all legal options and are disappointed that the Department of Homeland Security has not made a more affirmative policy statement to offer clarity and flexibility to new students and universities during this global pandemic,” read USC’s guidance to new international students.
Already, universities expected to see a drop in new international student enrollment said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president with the American Council on Education, because of delays tied to embassy and consulate closures due to the pandemic.
Even if they can get their visas and passports arranged, students from places such as China, which sends hundreds of thousands of its citizens to study in America, currently are barred from entering the U.S. if they have spent time in their home country in the last two weeks. So students would have to quarantine in a different country before flying to the U.S.
About 1.1 million international students studied in America during the 2018-19 academic year, and they made up 5.5 % of the higher education population, according to the Institute of International Education.
International students contributed nearly $45 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.