FILE - Students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 13, 2019.
FILE - Students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 13, 2019.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced this week that international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities that switch to online-only courses will have to leave the country or risk deportation. Here’s an overview of what is known about the most recent changes to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program during the pandemic. 

How many colleges and universities are planning online-only classes?

Nine percent of 1,090 U.S. universities -- or 98 institutions -- are planning for a fall semester exclusively online, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, which since March has been tracking which colleges and universities will teach online, in person or a hybrid of both.

An additional 24% -- or 262 -- say they are planning a hybrid model (part in class, part online), and 7.2% -- or 78 -- are undecided or undeclared.

Sixty percent – or 654 -- say they are planning for an in-person semester. 

New York University, with the largest population of international students at 19,605, is proposing a hybrid model. Columbia University, the fourth-largest international student population with 15,897, says it is considering multiple options but hopes to return to in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so.

University of Southern California -- with the second-largest population of international students at 16,340 -- is planning for online instruction for undergraduates. Twenty-three state universities in California, including University of California-Los Angeles with 11,942 international students, also plan to conduct online-only classes.

Northeastern University, with 16,075 international students, is planning a hybrid model, [[  ]] as is Boston University, which has 10,598 foreign scholars.

How many students are affected? What is the deadline for them to decide where to live?

As of the 2018-2019 academic school year, there were 1,095,299 international students at U.S. colleges and universities, according to the Institute for International Education, which issues an annual report on international students in the U.S. International students make up 5.5% of the higher education population in the U.S., according to IIE.

Colleges and universities typically notify applicants of acceptances the first quarter of the year, with most letters going out in early April. Students are expected to commit -- including making a deposit to hold their spot -- by early May. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed that process.

The states with the largest populations of international students are California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Some of those states have been among the hardest-hit by COVID-19.

What options do foreign students have if their university goes to online-only? Is there an appeal process?

Because the visa and university application process is long and complicated, students cannot easily pivot to other schools.

ICE, which oversees the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, is referring international students to a “School Reporting and Procedural Requirements” page on the SEVIS website.

Meanwhile, the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) has updated its guidance for the upcoming semester: “Some flexibility will continue for schools that adopt an in-person or hybrid model for Fall 2020, but will not continue for students in the United States studying at schools operating entirely online for Fall 2020.”

The association adds that a deadline is looming: “[A]ll schools must update their operational plans with SEVP: Schools that will be entirely online or will not reopen for Fall 2020 must notify SEVP no later than Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Schools that will offer an in-person or hybrid program for Fall 2020 must notify SEVP of their plans by August 1, 2020.”

What happens to students if colleges hosting in-person classes are later forced to go to online-only?

ICE advises, “Schools should update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes but are later required to switch to only online classes, or a nonimmigrant student changes their course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load.”

The ICE website adds: “Nonimmigrant students within the United States are not permitted to take a full course of study through online classes. 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.”

What are the financial implications of this new policy for universities and colleges?

Universities already weathering big declines in international enrollment and revenues will suffer another financial hit if foreign students are unable to attend. According to the Brookings Institution, international students account for $2.5 billion in tuition and other revenue to American colleges and universities.

But their total contribution to the U.S. economy is far larger. The American Council on Education estimates foreign students have economic impact of $41 billion and support more than 450,000 U.S. jobs. 

Colleges and universities that have the largest populations of foreign students are California (161,693), New York (124,277), Texas (81,893), Massachusetts (71,098), Illinois (53,724), Pennsylvania (51,818), Florida (45,957), Ohio (37,314), Michigan (33,236) and Indiana (29,083) in 2018-2019.

What are universities telling international students about this rule change?

Many colleges and universities are expressing dismay and pledging to do what they can to assist foreign students.

"We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes 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 Larry Bacow wrote the university community Monday.

“Our focus and efforts right now are on analyzing the DHS guidance to provide Stanford students accurate and timely information,” Shalini Bhutani, executive director of Stanford University’s International Center, wrote in a message to international students on Monday. “Please know that the Stanford community is committed to supporting international students.” 

“With today’s update, students with certain visas must enroll in at least one in person course this fall to enter or remain in the U.S. Students who choose to enroll fully online will still be able to matriculate with UCI this fall from outside the U.S.,” wrote Willie L. Banks Jr., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Student Affairs, and Gillian Hayes, Ph.D., vice provost for graduate education in an email to the University of California-Irvine community Monday.  

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