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COVID-19 Dominates Rough Year for Universities

FILE - A student wearing full-body PPE due to the COVID-19 pandemic walks toward the Coventry University Library at the beginning of the new academic year, at Coventry University, in Coventry, central England, Sept. 23, 2020.
FILE - A student wearing full-body PPE due to the COVID-19 pandemic walks toward the Coventry University Library at the beginning of the new academic year, at Coventry University, in Coventry, central England, Sept. 23, 2020.

Higher education did not escape the reaches of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. U.S. colleges and universities struggled with decisions in the spring to send students home, and then whether to open campuses in the fall, all with an eye to trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Students still feel adrift, and the financial impact on the industry has been significant.

The issues:

COVID-19 begins

In December 2019, international students celebrated the end of a semester’s hard work, with many flying home for the winter holidays. A month later, they traveled back to their U.S. schools for the beginning of a new semester.

Simultaneously, a new coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, home to several universities. Institutions were locked down in China and thousands of international students ordered to stay indoors. But COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, spread throughout Asia, and the world.

As the virus spread quickly, students, their families and the general population were unsure how to respond because of a lack of information, direction and strategy across the world.

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In the U.S., the first COVID-19 cases were detected in January 2020, but most schools were unsure how to respond until March, when the first spike in cases occurred. With no national or unified plan in place, university officials reacted in varying measures.

Some schools sent students home. Thousands of university students celebrated the extension of spring break, many in throngs at traditional beach and party venues. Many young people mingled with others and were dubbed super spreaders because they showed no symptoms even when infectious.

U.S. universities canceled study abroad programs, affecting thousands of U.S. students. The state of New York sent a plane to fetch its students from around the world and quarantined them in dorms and hotels together upon arrival.

By mid-March, hundreds of thousands of international students returned to their home countries while others remained in the U.S. to shelter in place.

COVID-19 chaos

With little experience or preparation for a pandemic, universities quickly shifted to mostly online learning for the spring semester.

Thousands of international students who flew back to their home countries juggled differing time zones.

Many institutions instituted a pass/fail grading option to relieve pressure on students, some of whom found online learning overwhelming.

With the switch to online learning, students and parents pushed back on paying full price for fewer services. Some universities, such as Williams College in Massachusetts and Princeton University in New Jersey, announced tuition discounts, while others negotiated adjustments with students. Some continued to charge full price.

Over the summer, most colleges and universities announced they would conduct some on-campus learning, but after reopening in the fall, COVID-19 cases spiked.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill saw 135 positive COVID-19 cases emerge after the first week of classes, which prompted them, and many other schools, to quickly revert to full remote learning.

As the end of the fall semester approached, most universities closed their campuses after the Thanksgiving break, and switched to online courses. COVID-19 cases spiked after Thanksgiving, the most traveled time of year in the U.S., as U.S. health experts had warned.

"People who do not currently live in your housing unit, such as college students who are returning home from school for the holidays, should be considered part of different households," the Centers for Disease Control said, advising Americans to adhere to coronavirus protocols to limit the risk of spreading the disease.

Among colleges and universities that were successful at keeping COVID-19 rates lower, frequent testing, vigilant monitoring and keeping students together were cited as factors.

Other issues, such as a college admissions scandal and immigration visa changes, also roiled student life at U.S. colleges and universities.

See all News Updates of the Day

Paper: International students faced extra pandemic challenges

FILE - Jackson State University student Kendra Daye reacts as Tameiki Lee, a nurse with the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, injects her with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 21, 2021.
FILE - Jackson State University student Kendra Daye reacts as Tameiki Lee, a nurse with the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, injects her with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 21, 2021.

Astrobites, which describes itself as "a daily astrophysical literature journal written by graduate students in astronomy since 2010," focuses on the challenges international students faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It examines a paper published in the Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education entitled The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on International Students in a Public University in the United States: Academic and Non-academic Challenges.

Read the Astrobites article here. (April 2024)

15 cheapest US universities for international students

FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.
FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.

Yahoo!Finance has compiled a list of the 15 cheapest U.S. universities for international students.

Among them: Arizona State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University.

Read the list here. (March 2024)

Studying STEM? International students have funding options

FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.
FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.

US News & World Report takes a look at funding options for international students pursuing STEM degrees in the U.S.

The article explains the different kinds of scholarships and grants and offers tips on getting part-time jobs and private student loans. Read the full story here. (March 2024)

US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.

This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.
Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.

The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

Harvard ranked last in this year’s survey. FIRE said the school punished some professors and researchers over what they had said or written, and students reported a poor climate for free speech on campus.

The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

Proposed settlement offered over financial aid allegations

FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.
FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

A group of U.S. colleges and universities have agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

The schools would pay $284 million to plaintiffs who were enrolled full-time and received financial aid between 2003 and 2024.

The schools have denied the allegations. (April 2024)

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