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OPT Under Fire

A group of Republican senators have sent a letter to President Trump, asking him to suspend optional practical training, the postgraduate work program for international students, as well as the H-1B work visa for the duration of the pandemic. There is no reason, they wrote, “to allow foreign students to stay for three additional years just to take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans as the economy recovers.”

Such letters are commonplace, a way for members of Congress to demonstrate they’re on top of an issue to certain constituents, especially when legislative action is unlikely. But context matters, and the context here is that in a recently signed executive order, the president ordered a 30-day review of all nonimmigrant visas, with recommendations to ensure the prioritization of hiring American workers. Student visas, of course, are nonimmigrant visas.

On Friday, the day after the letter was sent, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House was considering a second order, which could target “student visas and the work authorization that accompanies them.” The Journal is somewhat vague on what the administration will do — likely because officials have not yet decided — but it’s worth remembering that OPT is regulatory, not statutory. While regulatory changes are typically subject to public comment and a rulemaking process, the president has greater authority to act unilaterally.

In fact, the acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told a Fox News radio host more than a week earlier that his department was evaluating restrictions on student visas: “We’ll have a series of recommendations that we’ll be teeing up and some of those could include students on what we call…OPT and CPT, Optional Practical Training.”

There are disputes about the premise of the senators’ argument about the economic costs of OPT — a recent study by the Niskanen Center found that participation in OPT did not adversely affect average U.S. wages, unemployment rates, or labor-market participation. Research by the Business Roundtable suggests that cutting OPT and student visas could hurt the economy. And now? Everything I’m hearing is that in the midst of the public-health crisis students are really struggling to find jobs on OPT, and that the outbreak has cut hours for those who do. Recent guidance from Homeland Security would seem to reinforce that anecdotal reporting. In an FAQ, officials said if students’ work hours dip below 20 hours a week because of coronavirus’ impact on the economy, they can still be counted as taking part in OPT. Practically speaking, opportunities on OPT are already limited right now.

Just because these trial ballons have been floated does not mean changes are a done deal. OPT has long been on the administration’s regulatory agenda without action.

Still, we know that gaining work experience, along with a degree, is a major reason students come to the U.S. A suspension of OPT could be another blow to colleges’ already shaky overseas recruitment.

What do you think? Join the conversation on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Q&A: New Research on Visa Refusals

Current attention is focused on the fallout of the coronavirus on international enrollments, but it doesn’t take a global pandemic to affect student numbers. A new working paper examines the link between U.S. visa-refusal rates and international enrollments. It finds that a higher anticipated refusal rate decreases the number of international students taking the SAT, the number who send their scores to American colleges, and the number who enroll in the U.S. And the decline is larger among higher-performing students.

I talked with two of the authors — Mingyu Chen, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, and Jonathan Smith, an assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University — about their findings. “If students perceive the likelihood of successfully attaining an F-1 visa decreases, they are less likely to invest in the entire process,” they told me. Here are excerpts from our exchange:

High-scoring test takers are twice as responsive to more restrictive visa policies than low scorers. Can you walk me through a few reasons why visa restrictions may affect them disproportionately?

Here are just two examples. First, high-scoring test takers are more likely to have other options outside the U.S., including in their home country. Hence, when they see their chance of coming to the U.S. decline, they are more likely to invest their limited resources in other options. Second, high-scoring test takers may use the information on visa restrictiveness differently from low-scoring students. For example, they may have better access to the information and are better at calculating the expected benefit of completing the college application and visa process.

Your findings suggest tighter policy actually makes students less likely to take the SAT and, for those who do take it, less likely to send their scores to U.S. colleges. Why do you think restrictive policies affect students’ behavior that much earlier in the admissions process? Does it say something about the importance of students’ perceptions of visa restrictions on their choices?

Yes. In fact, our estimates are largely about the impact of this visa restrictiveness on students’ perceptions as opposed to the “mechanical” effect of stricter policy reducing visas and the number of international students. Because of the uncertainty of obtaining an F-1 visa and how the visa process works, students must pay a substantial cost to apply to U.S. colleges and for visas before learning the outcome of their F-1 visa application. The cost includes the time and money spent, as well as psychological stress. A lower anticipated chance of obtaining a student visa can, therefore, decrease the expected benefit of taking the SAT and sending test scores.

What does your research contribute to the narrative around international students?

There is a narrative that international students pay full tuition and help subsidize domestic students’ education, which is largely true. However, our paper shows that narrative misses an important point about international students. We show that the U.S. receives students with very good academic records, on average. At places where we can measure SAT scores, international students have higher average SAT scores than their domestic peers, even at the same institution.

What are related questions you might explore next?

We plan to use the same data to explore how and why international students choose to attend specific colleges. Our current paper simply looks at attending the U.S. in aggregate and looking at specific types of institutions (e.g., selective and non-selective, public and private, urban and rural) may prove useful for colleges and universities when setting policy and tuition. Dr. Chen also has several other projects related to international students. In one of his papers, he runs a large-scale field experiment and a survey to study how employers in China value U.S. college degrees versus domestic degrees. He finds that U.S.-educated candidates are less likely to receive a callback, with very selective U.S. institutions underperforming the least selective U.S. institutions. Another ongoing project estimates the program-specific financial contribution of international students and the causal impact of international undergraduate enrollment on U.S. public universities. He finds that when universities face state funding cuts and gain revenue from international students, they use the money to maintain or expand seats for in-state students while keeping the per-student spending constant.

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Let’s Connect

Join me for a webinar this Tuesday, May 12, at 11 a.m. ET, organized by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration on “COVID-19 Crisis and the Impact on International Populations in Higher Education and Beyond.” I’m moderating a discussion between college leaders, and we’ll be taking questions about campus action as well as advocacy for international students on a national stage.

Some background: The Presidents’ Alliance sent a letter to the Departments of State and Homeland Security, calling on them to take “commonsense actions” to help sustain international enrollments amid the pandemic, including expedited visa processing for international students and scholars and additional flexibility in applying for OPT.

And ICYMI, here’s a recording of John Wilkerson of Indiana University, Jonathan Burdick of Cornell, and me talking about international students and what’s ahead for fall (yes, those are lemons on my wallpaper):

Around the Globe

Republican congressmen announced a probe into Chinese efforts to “infilitrate” American campuses.

Under new Title IX rules, colleges will not be required to investigate off-campus sexual misconduct that occurs during study abroad.

Duke Kunshan University has named its next executive vice chancellor — and he comes from NYU-Abu Dhabi.

An Iranian-born professor is suing customs and immigration officials for refusing to return electronic devices they seized from him at a Boston airport.

Iran sentenced a student to six years in prison for taking part in protests after the military shot down an airliner earlier this year.

Students could be eased back onto Australian campuses under a government plan, with international students returning in July.

European lawmakers are examining whether online proctoring software violates students’ privacy rights.

The United States took first place in a ranking of national higher-education systems.

During the Lebanese civil war, the American University of Beirut survived a bombing and presidents who were abducted or killed. Can it weather the coronavirus?

And finally …

It’s nothing to do with border seizures or global rankings, as the New York Times’ Sam Sifton might say in his Cooking newsletters, but this playlist from the New York Public Library is a little auditory snippet of some of what we’re missing in these shut-in days: Bellying up to a crowded bar. The clang of a rush-hour subway. The crack of the bat and the swell of the crowd in — you know me — a baseball outfield.

’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.