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What About International Students?

College leaders have been sounding increasingly bullish about their fall plans, signaling their intent to have students return to campus for the upcoming semester. In the New York Times, Brown University President Christina Paxson said reopening colleges “should be a national priority.” President Trump singled out Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue and one of the first to call for resuming in-person classes, for praise. “I think that’s correct,” the president said.

But missing in Daniels’ announcement about his intent to reopen? Any mention of the 11,000 international students who attend Purdue, at least some of whom will find it difficult — impossible, even — to make it to campus this fall. Indeed, most of the reopening statements have been silent about the roadblocks — closed consulates, travel bans, limited flights — that stand in the way of international students’ return.

The majority of colleges, of course, have not declared their fall plans, a situation that brings its own set of frustrations for international students. “They want us to promise we’re coming,” one parent groused to me the other day, “and we don’t even know if there will be classes.”

And behind the optimistic messaging, contingency planning continues. Even at institutions that have unequivocally stated an intent to return, I’ve talked with administrators who are preparing for the possibility of a fall with few new international students and a diminished number of returning upperclassmen from abroad.

As a fellow reporter noted on Twitter, there are a lot of reasons college leaders want to project the confidence and stability a fall reopening suggests. After all, S&P Global just downgraded its outlook for more than 125 colleges to negative, with declining international enrollments as an important factor.

Here’s the problem: In making the case for reopening, college leaders have emphasized the unique benefits of face-to-face education they say aren’t present when learning online. Daniels cited research that students who live and spend most of their time on campus are more academically successful. Baylor’s president Linda Livingstone noted the “distinct on-campus college experience” for which the university is known in laying out her plans for fall classes. In the Times, Paxson wrote of “all that makes in-person education so valuable: the fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom, the research opportunities in university laboratories and libraries, and the personal interactions among students with different perspectives and life experiences.”

Colleges will have to address the fact that some students — international students as well as students whose age, health, or living situation could make a return to campus risky — are almost inevitably going to be relegated to a second educational pathway that the institutions themselves see as subpar.

In painting a positive scenario for fall, what happens to those left out of the picture?

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Woo-hoo, an FAQ!

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program has released a new round of guidance on student-visa regulations during the pandemic. With classes entirely online and students dispersed across the globe, the Homeland Security agency has given colleges great latitude in navigating the rules. Here are some key points in the latest update:

  • If students do not want to enroll in online classes and thus are not taking a full course of study, they will have to take a temporary absence.
  • Once regular in-person instruction resumes, if international students cannot or choose not to return to the U.S., their student-visa records should be terminated.
  • If the economic impact of the outbreak causes students’ hours to dip below 20 hours a week, they can still be counted as taking part in the OPT work program.
  • Electronically-issued student-visa documents called I-20s are permitted during the COVID-19 crisis and will be valid until a student needs an updated form.
  • Colleges that submitted plans to the government detailing procedural changes for the spring semester, such as moving to remote classes, won’t have to update them for the summer term. They may, however, have to submit new plans for fall.

While this latest round provides students and colleges with more clarity, unanswered questions remain. One of the most frequent I’ve heard: Can students apply for OPT while outside the U.S.? Got more thoughts about OPT and other visa regs? Join the conversation on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Zooming In

Or, hey, let’s talk in IRL — or in what passes for IRL today, which is to say, Zoom. I’m part of two upcoming webinars:

On Tuesday, May 5, at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll be joining Jonathan Burdick of Cornell University and John Wilkerson of Indiana University to talk about “International Students and Fall 2020: Options and Opportunities.” Sign up for the session, put on by Hudson Global Alliance, here.

On Tuesday, May 12, at 11 a.m. ET, the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration is organizing a forum on “COVID-19 Crisis and the Impact on International Populations in Higher Education and Beyond.” I’ll be part of a line-up that includes Alan Cramb, president of Illinois Institute of Technology, Leocadia Zak, president of Agnes Scott College, and former Arizona Congressman Matt Salmon, who is vice president of government affairs at Arizona State University.

New Calls for COVID Aid

House Democrats are asking the U.S. Department of Education to reverse course on its decision to exclude international and undocumented students from receiving emergency coronavirus aid. In guidelines issued a week ago to colleges, the department said that only students who qualify for federal financial aid are eligible for special assistance, language that wasn’t in the original legislation.

In a letter to Secretary Betsy DeVos, more than 70 lawmakers write, “In this extraordinary time we should not be dividing students based on immigration status or unduly limiting aid. This pandemic has upended the lives of all students from coast to coast, and colleges and universities should have the flexibility to help those in need.”

A group of Senate Democrats sent a similar letter, but it focuses only on DACA recipients and does not mention international students.

Meanwhile, others are stepping up to help needy students. The University of California and California State University systems said they would use their own funds for stop-gap grants to Dreamers. And a coalition of nonprofit groups has started an emergency relief fund for students left out of federal assistance.

Want to know more? In the Harvard Crimson, Azan Z. Virji, a first-year medical student from Tanzania, writes from the perspective of an international student who could not afford to go home: “No one should go to bed hungry, especially during this pandemic.”

Around the Globe

A group of Fulbrighters are collecting information from scholars and grantees about the impact of the abrupt cancellation of the current program and the postponement of next year’s travel.

Returning Peace Corps volunteers will be eligible for unemployment benefits.

The Education Department has asked the University of Texas to provide documents about its dealings with a Chinese laboratory U.S. officials are investigating as a potential source of the coronavirus pandemic.

Proposed legislation would ease visa processing logjams for foreign-born doctors and nurses who are treating coronavirus patients.

South Korean students have asked the country’s Constitutional Court to rule whether tuition should be reduced during the outbreak.

A governor in Pakistan has proposed making study of the Quran mandatory in his province’s universities.

A Venezuelan professor who has been a critic of the government has been arrested.

Hong Kong’s police chief has demanded a university there investigate a professor for comments he made about the police force’s handling of anti-government protests last year.

A Russian university expelled hundreds of students from campus dormitories during the coronavirus lockdown.

The Dutch government is considering rolling back English-language degrees in its universities.

And finally …

With meetings and classes moved to Zoom or other online platforms, we’ve all become voyeurs of a sort. Suddenly, we have a window into the homes of colleagues and acquaintances. We can peer into their spare rooms or corners of their bedrooms, assess their furnishing and arts, spot their spouses and kids. Or for the bibliophiles among us, peruse their shelves. The New York Times recently broke down the books in the background of several celebrities’ online interviews and it was interesting, enlightening, and, at times, a little perplexing. (I’ve never seen all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary in a home library.) But now I have several ideas for what to read next.

’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.