Harvard Says U.S. Visa Rules Upend College Pandemic Planning

New federal guidelines that would block international students from remaining in the U.S. if their schools only offer online classes threaten to upend months of planning by American colleges trying to weather the financial hit from Covid-19.

The visa rules disclosed this week by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency impose “a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem,” giving international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools, Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow said in a statement.

Colleges have begun rolling out plans for the fall semester, with many offering some form of limited in-person classes. Harvard said about 40% of students would return to its campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while all courses will be taught remotely. About 1.1 million international students were studying at U.S. colleges in the 2018-19 school year, according to the most recentdata from the Institute of International Education.

“This guidance undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic,” Bacow said.

On Monday, ICE announced its modified temporary exemptions for students taking online classes.

“Nonimmigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes,” the agency said in astatement. “If students find themselves in this situation, they must leave the country or take alternative steps to maintain their nonimmigrant status such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave.”

Universities that rely heavily on international students, who typically pay full price, are uncertain how many undergraduates will come if their college experience is altered by Covid-19 testing, masks and limited social interaction.

Read more: International Student Visas at Risk as Schools Go Solely Online

Students on existing visas who wish to remain in the U.S. must transfer to a school with in-person instruction or attend an institution that offers both remote and on-campus learning, according to ICE.

“Iron-clad federal rules are not the answer at this time of great uncertainty,” said Ted Mitchell, president of American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,700 colleges and trade groups. Mitchell, a former undersecretary of the U.S. Education Department, called the regulations “horrifying.”

Scheduling Headaches

International students must now find at least one in-person class to attend, creating additional logistics and scheduling headaches, said Alan Caniglia, acting vice president for finance and administration at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“I worry in general about how this affects us, I worry about how it affects our students,” Caniglia said. “I do worry about losing the room and board revenue.”

About 20% of the school’s 2,250 undergradates are from overseas, and this year it’s expecting 125 incoming freshmen from abroad. Many of them will take its online courses at satellite centers in Beijing, Shanghai or Bath, England, instead of paying to live on campus.

William Zhu, a 23-year old student from China, is due to begin his pursuit of a master’s at the University of Chicago. Zhu, who’s currently working in the U.S. and plans to attend in person, said he doesn’t know what would happen if the school is forced to switch to online-only classes.

“If an outbreak happens on campus and the campus shuts down, does it mean that students will get deported mid-semester?” he said.

‘Meta Message’

Making it more difficult for international students to study here undermines decades of collaboration between the U.S. and international partners, particularly in fields that contribute to the country’s economic vitality, University of California President Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

“ICE’s announcement is perplexing, given that some degree of remote instruction is necessary for colleges and universities to protect the safety and well-being of their communities and the public at large, while still allowing students to continue their studies,” said Napolitano, who led the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.

Higher-education groups are conferring about what actions they’ll take collectively, said Lizbet Boroughs, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities.

“Yesterday’s guidance could be viewed as pressuring universities and colleges to reopen fully and reopen against the best advice from their state and local public health departments,” she said. “The meta message here is that immigrants aren’t welcome in this country.”

— With assistance by Shaun Courtney, Yifan Feng, and Andrew Kreighbaum

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