Foreign students attending U.S. colleges that will operate entirely online this fall semester cannot remain in the country to do so, according to new regulations released Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As college students across the United States and around the world contemplate what their upcoming semester might look like, the federal guidance limits options for international students and leaves them with an uncomfortable choice: attend in-person classes during a pandemic or take them online from another country.
And for students enrolled in schools that have already announced plans to operate fully online, there is no choice. Under the new rules, the State Department will not issue them visas, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not allow them to enter the country.
"Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status," read a release from ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program. "If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings."
The agency said students already in the country and faced with a fully online course of study may take alternative measures to maintain their nonimmigrant status, "such as a reduced course load or appropriate medical leave."
The rule applies to holders of F-1 and M-1 nonimmigrant visas, which allow nonimmigrant students to pursue academic and vocational coursework, respectively.
More than 1 million of the country's higher education students come from overseas, according to the nonprofit Institute of International Education.
Typically, foreign students are limited in how many online courses they can take and are required to do the majority of their learning in the classroom, according to immigration lawyer Fiona McEntee. Once the pandemic struck, students were given flexibility to take more online classes — but only for the spring and summer semesters.
"It's an unprecedented public health crisis, and I don't think it's too much to ask for the allowances that they made to continue, especially given the fact that we clearly, quite clearly do not have a handle on the pandemic here right now, unlike other countries that have," McEntee said. "This makes no sense."
McEntee said the decision is especially puzzling given the value of foreign students, which is quantifiable economically.
According to an economic analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators, international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year.
McEntee added that losing foreign students is a huge blow to university budgets, something that will impact domestic students as well. Similarly, the decision to attend classes in person impacts all students present.
"If students can study online successfully from an academic point of view, why are we forcing them to come into a situation where they could put their health at risk and also the health of their classmates at risk?" she asked.
Students attending schools operating as usual will remain bound by existing federal regulations that permit them to take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.
Students attending schools implementing a hybrid model can take more online classes or credits, though their school must certify "that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program."
The announcement comes as higher education institutions are releasing frameworks for reopening in the fall semester. Schools are preparing to offer in-person instruction, online classes or a mix of both.
Eight percent of colleges are planning to operate online, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the reopening plans of more than 1,000 U.S. colleges. Sixty percent are planning for in-person instruction, and 23% are proposing a hybrid model, with a combined 8.5% undecided or considering a range of scenarios.
Harvard University is one of the latest institutions to unveil its plans, announcing on Monday that all undergraduate and graduate course instruction for the academic year will be held online. Nevertheless, the university plans to bring 40% of undergraduates, including all freshmen, onto campus.
Harvard President Larry Bacow said in a statement emailed to NPR that the ICE policy is "a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem."
"We must do all that we can to ensure that our students can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year, disrupting their academic progress and undermining the commitments—and sacrifices—that many of them have made to advance their education," the statement said.
School reopening plans may be subject to change because of the evolving nature of the pandemic, especially with daily case totals continuing to break records in parts of the country.
In acknowledgment, the agency instructs schools to update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System within 10 days of making the switch to online-only classes.
Immigration lawyer McEntee, a former international student herself, said leaving for school can be challenging enough, not to mention during a pandemic and in a landscape of near-constant immigration restrictions. She called the new rule, both in substance and timing, "not right."
"This is not the America that I think foreign students come to live in," she said.
The American Council on Education, a higher education lobbying group, also condemned the rule change in a statement issued Monday afternoon. ACE President Ted Mitchell said the guidance "provides confusion and complexity rather than certainty and clarity" and called on ICE to rethink its position.
"At a time when institutions are doing everything they can to help reopen our country, we need flexibility, not a big step in the wrong direction," he wrote. "ICE should allow any international student with a valid visa to continue their education regardless of whether a student is receiving his or her education online, in person, or through a combination of both, whether in the United States or in their home country, during this unprecedented global health crisis."