International student flexibilities extended as colleges plan for fall

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • Federal agencies have extended and clarified flexibilities for international students attending U.S. colleges during the 2021-22 academic year. They also eased some travel restrictions.
  • Higher education experts say the decisions will allow students and schools to plan for the upcoming academic year, but they caution that visa processing backlogs could be a hurdle.
  • International student enrollment took a hit last fall, exacerbating a pre-pandemic contraction.

Dive Insight:

Last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement renewed flexibilities granted early in the pandemic to international students and their colleges. Among them is the ability for students enrolled as of March 9, 2020, to continue taking classes while based in the U.S. or reenter the country, even if those courses are entirely online. Depending on their visa type, those students would typically only be allowed to take one online class per term or none. The latest guidance offers additional clarification: Students not enrolled by March can enter the U.S. if their program has an in-person learning requirement. Previous guidance stated that enrolled students couldn’t enter the country if their classes were entirely online.

Although many colleges plan to reopen in person this fall, this flexibility will be “beneficial” in letting them adapt if coronavirus case counts rise or they otherwise need to have some classes online, said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education. The U.S. Department of State also recently pulled back travel restrictions for students and academics coming to U.S. campuses this fall from several countries, including China and India, the two most significant sources of international students. The department previously relaxed such restrictions for students from many European countries.


The restrictions prevented students from being able to travel directly to the U.S. In a March letter to the heads of the State and Homeland Security departments, ACE and more than three dozen higher ed groups asked officials to exempt students from countries subject to such rules. They also asked officials to ensure “the timely and efficient” processing of visa applications and waive the requirement for in-person interviews or hold them online if consulates can’t open on time. Consulate closures are delaying processing, Spreitzer said, and even once they reopen, a backlog of applications could bog it down.

There’s some hope. The U.S. Embassy and consulates in China — which accounts for a third of international students in the U.S. — were scheduled to resume student visa appointments this week. NAFSA signed on to ACE’s letter. Joann Ng Hartmann, a senior director at the international educators association NAFSA, has heard anecdotally that student visa approvals have been slow. Waiving the in-person interview or allowing it to happen online “can at least get visa applications moving again,” Ng Hartmann said.

The pandemic is dealing a blow to international student enrollment. The number of international students studying at U.S. colleges fell 16% last fall, with a 43% drop among new students, according to a survey of more than 700 schools from the Institute of International Education. This followed the first decrease in the total number of international students in the U.S. in more than a decade. The effects are expected to linger. Analysts have said ongoing travel restrictions, competition from other countries, and consequences of the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies would drag the recovery.

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