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For Some Universities, Fall Semester Uncertain as Coronavirus Persists Globally 


Students wearing masks make their way through the University of Chicago campus, May 6, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois.

The U.S. government’s pumping of $35 billion into emergency aid for college students has not been enough for some universities, say education experts.

They cite drastically lower enrollments even as things appear to be shifting back to normal after more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Enrollments are down quite significantly, both at the public institutions and the community colleges, nationwide,” said Todd Sedmak, manager of corporate communications at National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a nonprofit organization that crunches education data.

“This decrease in enrollment has led to less money coming to universities from tuition and fees,” he said.

Declines in enrollment occurred because of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down campuses in March 2020. Students switched to remote learning, while others deferred enrollment: Online learning, coupled with the cost of college — was not worth it for many students.

Among international students, enrollment decreased 43% for the fall 2020 semester, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). Among American students, enrollments declined 2.5% in fall 2020, nearly twice the rate of enrollment decline reported in fall 2019, NSC reported.

The fiscal contribution from international students to the U.S. economy in the 2019-2020 academic year was $38.7 billion, down $1.8 billion (4.4%), Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy and legislation at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, wrote in an email to VOA.

The savings from colleges and universities not operating study abroad programs during the pandemic partially offset the financial loss of fewer enrollments, said Catharine Hill, managing director of Ithaka S+R, an organization looking to broaden access to higher education and reduce costs.

But overall, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the pandemic’s economic toll on U.S. universities and colleges has been huge.

Some colleges have closed, unable to weather the economic storm. Banks pointed to Becker College in Massachusetts, Mills College in California, and Concordia College in New York as examples, writing that they “have had to shut their doors because the pandemic exacerbated their existing financial troubles.”

As for students who suddenly find themselves without a college or university to attend, Federal Student Aid (FSA), an office of the U.S. Department of Education, lists options.

Students may transfer to another university to finish their program of study. Some closing institutions offer what is called a teach out, which is a specific contract with another institution for students to fulfill their studies to graduate.

Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, agreed to a formal agreement with nearby Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, to provide continued education for Concordia’s students. Iona will purchase Concordia’s leafy Bronxville campus.

Graduating international students at Concordia who hold F-1 student visas will be protected by a transfer of records to Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, according to the university website. The university will be a custodian of the student’s records, allowing the Designated School Official (DSO) there to manage students who have been approved for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a popular work-permit program for international students.

For U.S. citizens who decide not to continue their education immediately, they can try to discharge their federal student loans, meaning some or all of the money is not repaid.

For international students, school closures could threaten their visa status. Students are encouraged to speak to their school’s designated official for the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).

According to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, schools will retain access to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to transfer and maintain student records until a date set by SEVP, upon which SEVP will terminate the student’s SEVIS records.

Active nonimmigrant students or students in initial status who have already entered the U.S. after being cleared to do so can transfer to another SEVP-certified institution, change their visa status or leave the country, according to ICE.

In terms of what the fall semester will look like for international students in the U.S., Ithaka S+R’s Hill said uncertainty still exists.

“I think there'll still be some problems with international students just because other countries are not getting vaccinated as quickly,” she said. “So, I'm not quite sure what they'll do there ... have a negative test before they leave, bring them back, have them quarantine for two weeks, and then get the vaccine.”

Hill also said she hoped domestic students “can come back.”

Pasquerella acknowledged that in addition to the schools of higher learning, students have had to face hardships during the pandemic.

“For decades, we've been talking about how the current financial model for higher education is unsustainable; we can't continue to have increasing tuition, burgeoning loan burdens for students, especially at a time when job prospects for college graduates are uncertain,” she said.

To best help students, Pasquerella said, reinvestment in higher education is needed. That way, she said, it would be seen as a public good, rather than a private commodity. Hill noted that the Biden administration’s proposal to double the Pell Grant would be helpful.

A federal Pell Grant does not have to be repaid. The maximum Pell Grant for 2015–2016 was $5,775. The amount depends on the costs to attend school, a person’s financial need, status as a full- or part-time student, and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Hill said she is still worried about the pandemic’s effect on lower-income students.

“I do worry that low-income families have been so disrupted that getting students to college — I mean, even if the economy comes back, if you've been out of the labor market for a year, [it] takes a little longer to recover from that,” she told VOA.

“The higher your income, the more likely that you actually still had some in-person classes or effective synchronous online classes,” Hill said. “And the lower your income, the more likely that you've just missed out on a good part of your high school education. And that's going to put students in a very different position when it's time to go to college.”

While the coronavirus and its variants remain global, Banks said enrollment was up from last year’s significant losses.

The Common App, a standardized application to colleges and universities, showed that as of February 15, the volume of international applicants to U.S. colleges and universities for Fall 2021 had increased by about 13% over the prior year.

The countries that send the most students are showing increases, Banks said, with the exception of China.

“Although applications from China are down by 18% from last year, there are large increases in applicants from other countries including India (+28%), Canada (+22%), Nigeria (+12%), Pakistan (+37%), the United Kingdom (+23%), and Brazil (+41%),” she wrote.

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