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A Fall-off in the Fall

College leaders across the country scrambled to close campuses and shift to remote learning as the coronavirus spread. Now they face the very real possibility of a fall semester online.

According to a recent survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 60 percent of colleges are considering or have already decided to remain fully online this fall due to the public-health crisis. If anything, I think that understates things — I haven’t talked to a single college in recent weeks that doesn’t have an all-online option on the table. As one person told me, “There are contingency plans for contingencies now.”

There are challenges to doing fall online for all colleges and for all students. But the problems are especially acute for international students. Here’s why:

Even if social distancing works and campuses are able to reopen for the fall term, it’s a near-certainty that some international students will not be able to attend. Current students who have gone back home could continue to face travel restrictions. New students and those whose visas have expired will have to deal with visa-application backlogs. Consular offices around the world are currently closed; in China, the earliest visa-appointment slots aren’t until mid-July. Processing delays, limited flights, 14-day quarantines on arrival — all will make it difficult for some international students to be back in time for the start of classes, if at all.

Aside from immuno-comprised students, international students are then perhaps the population most likely to be studying remotely, even in a best-case scenario. But will they want to?

As in the U.S., online learning is viewed as inferior to face-to-face in many parts of the world — and current classes, hurriedly stood up to salvage the spring semester, are unlikely to convince detractors. A number of countries limit the number of online courses a student can take while studying abroad if they want their degree recognized back home, which can be critical to getting hired by local employers. China recenty temporarily relaxed such requirements, but it’s unclear how an extended period of online education would affect degree certification.

The U.S. government also restricts international students to just one distance-education course per semester. It lifted this provision as part of a broader loosening of student-visa rules as COVID-19 spread, and most international-student administrators I spoke with said they expect that leeway to continue into the fall semester if campuses have to continue to deliver coursework online. Still, it’s not a given.

Because they are not yet in the country, new students aren’t bound by the visa regulations. But most colleges haven’t historically offered their degree programs online overseas, and despite the crisis, some could still hesitate to extend their offerings to students who have never set foot on campus. And given the option, many international freshmen could choose to defer rather than spend the first semester online. The pipeline of incoming students could abruptly, substantially slow.

The calculus is different for current students, of course. There are disincentives — academic, financial, visa-wise — to pausing in the middle of a degree program. It’s a long-term investment, while the coronavirus and the move to online learning are, hopefully, temporary hiccups.

Still, international students pay a premium to study in the United States, more than they would to stay at home and often more than their American classmates. Do they want to pay for — and forgive the shorthand — Zoom U.?

This isn’t just about course delivery. International students aren’t paying solely for what happens within the four walls of a classroom. They are paying for the residential-college experience, for internships and extracurriculars, to taste another culture, to make new friends. They are coming to our campuses for “the immersive experience of being in the States,” one administrator wrote me. That’s what they value in an American education, and it’s not something they can get through a computer screen.

Now that I’ve thoroughly been a bummer, let me ask you: How is your college preparing for the possibility of an online fall? On Twitter and LinkedIn, some of you have already been sharing what you’re working on, from developing more intentional, internationally-oriented online programming to taking advantage of study abroad to deliver your coursework in-country. Expect more on this in the coming weeks.

As always, I appreciate your feedback and ideas for coverage. You can reach me at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Around the Globe

International enrollments at American colleges could drop by 25 percent next year, according to an estimate by major higher-ed associations.

Colleges can nominate international students who are unable to go home because of COVID-19 and have high financial need for the IIE Emergency Student Fund. Applications are due April 26.

When Chinese universities reopen, students will be forbidden from leaving campus.

The Chinese government may be cracking down on academic papers about the origins of the coronavirus in an effort to control the narrative about the pandemic.

A court has lifted European travel restrictions against a former director of a Confucius Institute in Belgium. The head of the Chinese-language-and-cultural center had been accused of spying.

IELTS has rolled out an at-home version of its English-language-proficiency test.

UCLA law students condemned a professor who speculated in a since-deleted tweet that Chinese students in his class may have been responsible for his recent illness.

Doctoral students at Harvard have developed a crowdsourced map that tracks anti-Asian incidents in Boston and New York.

An opinion columnist in the Miami Herald crafted an imaginary commencement address from Xi Jinping to Chinese students in the U.S. — and falsely characterized the Chinese leader as a “sugar daddy” who pays students’ way.

An Australian university student who has been critical of China faces explulsion.

China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades. In the very first issue of this newsletter, I wrote about why a recession in China would be felt by American colleges.

New Estimates of Dreamers

Close to a half-million undocumented students are enrolled at American colleges, according to a new study by New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. According to the analysis, there are approximately 450,000 undocumented students, or about 2 percent of the overall postsecondary population. Among other findings:

  • Eight in 10 of these students study at public colleges. Nine in 10 are undergraduates.
  • California, followed by Texas, has the most undocumented college students.
  • Forty-six perecent of the students are Hispanic, while a quarter are Asian.

Fewer than half of undocumented students are part of, or are eligible for, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era program that provides legal protections to young, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Trump administration’s efforts to end the program in the coming weeks.

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And finally …

CityLab invited readers to create interpretative maps of their coronavirus worlds, and I dare you not to lose yourself for an hour in these intricate portraits. There’s one I recognize as being not far from the Berkeley campus, another drawn by a graduate student back at home with four younger siblings (“the futon on which I am crashing,” she has labeled her space). The map that resonated the most, though, is from a fellow California transplant, tracing connections to friends and family criss-crossing the country. “Quarantine has shrunk my world to just my house, but at the same time, has reminded me that my world is much, much wider,” the illustrator writes.

For me, and I know for many of you, those ties radiate out across much of the globe. The other day, as the morning fog in San Francisco was beginning to burn off, I hopped on a Zoom call with a friend. Outside London, where he lives, the day was winding down. For an hour, we just chatted, about his garden and my bread-baking, about his bike rides on back roads and my spins on the not-Peloton now squeezed into a corner of my living room, about when we might see each other again. It was a reminder, as the CityLab mapmaker said, “My neighborhood feels inaccessible, but my community feels very real.”

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.