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Known Unknowns

The Wall Street Journal confirmed Saturday morning what had been anticipated: That optional practical training, the work program for international graduates, is expected to be among new visa and immigration restrictions imposed by the Trump administration.

This isn’t a huge surprise. After all, the acting homeland security secretary said a couple of weeks ago that his department was “teeing up” recommendations to limit OPT. The administration has argued that curtailing OPT, along with other skilled-worker programs like H-1B, is needed to preserve jobs for Americans during the coronavirus-related economic downturn.

The new package of visa restrictions could be issued in the “next few weeks,” the WSJ said. The current executive order expires June 22.

So that’s what we know. Now for the known unknowns, in Donald Rumsfeld’s parlance, the things we know that we don’t know — and that we wish we knew the answers to.

First off, the timeline. View the dates laid out in the presidential proclamation as more guideline than gospel. There’s nothing stopping President Trump from issuing a new order tomorrow; he doesn’t have to wait for the expiration of the current one.

Substantively, it’s unclear what shape the restrictions will take, and administration officials have been vague:

  • Will the order suspend the program outright, perhaps for six months or a year?
  • Could it be crafted to more narrowly target certain high-tech fields?
  • The end of the academic year is prime time for new applications, which can lead to backlogs. What will happen to those that are pending?
  • What about STEM extensions?
  • Could students already authorized for OPT be grandfathered in?
  • Will curricular practical training, which allows students to gain work experience as part of their academic program, be included, too?

Handicapping the path the president could take is tough, but those are some potential scenarios I’ve been hearing.

I don’t want to raise hopes, but there’s always the outside possibility that none of this will happen. The original order, after all, was expected to be more far-reaching than it ultimately was. Business groups, companies, and higher ed have all warned about the costs of suspending OPT and H-1B, saying that to do so could only deepen the economic uncertainty. Could those arguments gain traction? On the other side of the fierce lobbying campaign, College Republican clubs are urging the president to “make this right” by ending the programs.

Finally, it doesn’t take a presidential order to disrupt OPT. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that approves students’ work authorization, could run out of funding, as soon as this summer.

For the latest updates on this developing story, follow me on Twitter.

What’s at Stake

The answer is: A lot. Of the 1.1 million international students currently in the U.S., 20 percent are actually working as part of OPT. I talked with one of them, Samuel, a recent graduate of Dickinson College, along with the college’s president, Margee Ensign.

Samuel, who is from China and graduated a week ago, accepted a job with a technology consulting company and has already been approved for OPT. (He asked to go by a nickname, for fear his student-visa could be revoked for speaking out.) Staying in the U.S. to work after graduation was part of his plan from the outset, he told me. Getting American work experience adds to his degree’s value, the practical training and skills an important complement to his liberal-arts education. “Learning from practice is as important as learning from school,” he said.

If OPT was restricted, younger students might think twice about studying in the U.S., Samuel said. He has a friend who had long planned to come to America but has pivoted to apply to British universities. “He feels uncertain about the future.”

Stories like this worry Ensign. “Higher education is one of the few fields where the U.S. still has global leadership,” she said. That reputation could be diminished if OPT drives students to study elsewhere.

The opponents of OPT are wrong to think of the situation as a zero-sum game, Ensign argued. Many of the problems facing the world today — from climate change to the current pandemic — know no borders. International students come to the U.S. with talent and they leave with an education that will help them, and us, tackle these challenges, she said. Her message to international students: “You contribute as much to us as we do to you.”

A Big Impact

COVID-19 will have a $4.5 billion hit to international education, according to new estimates of the financial impact from NAFSA. American colleges lost nearly $1 billion because of study-abroad programs that were shortened or canceled and spent $638 million to aid students and scholars who remained in the U.S. when the coronavirus spread. They also stand to lose $3 billion due to anticipated international-student declines this fall.

The estimates are based on a survey of college leaders on the financial and employment impacts of COVID on international ed. I asked about methodology: Responses were broken down by institutional type, then the findings were applied to the overall number of that type of institution in the U.S. to calculate broader impact.

Speaking of fall, international enrollments are one of the biggest question marks for American colleges. Travel restrictions, visa delays, and lengthy quarantines could make it difficult for students, especially new ones, to make it to campus. For the Chronicle, I wrote about how colleges are repurposing study-abroad programs, setting up online courses with an international audience in mind, and enlisting alumni to help foster a sense of community in order to serve international students stranded by the coronavirus.

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Around the Globe

The U.S. government may be scrutinizing Israeli universities’ ties with China.

A legal scholar is raising concerns about the civil-rights implications of the Justice Department’s China Initiative, which is aimed at countering economic espionage, theft of intellectual property, and other national-security issues.

Turkey’s president is trying to shut down a university that was founded by a political opponent.

Iran has sentenced a French academic to six years in prison on security charges.

A Chinese mother who pleaded guilty to making six-figure bribes to get her son into UCLA will pay a $250,000 fine, in addition to time served.

A Hong Kong university student caught with petrol bombs during last year’s pro-democracy protests will be jailed for a year.

The future of the British Council, which promotes UK education and international exchange globally, is in jeopardy because of a severe drop in income in the wake of the coronavirus.

One reason why so many international students may have remained in the U.S.? The only flights home are phantoms.

Indian students stuck in Britain are being evicted because they can’t pay their rent.

The coronavirus could change Japan’s academic calendar.

And finally …

Somehow, my stomach and I got lucky.

When I first started covering the international beat I met a guy named Stephen Ferst. We hit it off and just before the NAFSA conference, I got an email from him. “The Foodie List,” the subject line read. In it, Steve, who is now executive director of the Center of Global Education at the College of Staten Island and was a longtime NAFSA board member, shared a detailed round-up of the best dining spots in that year’s host city, many off the beaten path, with a few friends.

Truthfully, most of my NAFSA meals are granola bars and Diet Dr Pepper, but I always look forward to Steve’s annual list, in part to savor his food writing. (Start a blog! I nag.) Each year, we find time for a meal at one of the places he recommends. We’ve had cocktails at a speak-easy in Kansas City and eaten midnight burgers in Boston. Last year we were in my old stomping grounds in D.C., and he managed to conjure up a perfect spot where I had never been.

This year, of course, NAFSA is canceled, as is so much of our regular lives. But the other day, my email dinged. “The Stay-at-Home Foodie List” was a compendium of some of the meals Steve, who likes to cook as much he does to eat, has been making for his family during the quarantine. There were kefta kabobs and street tacos and Saigon rice, recipes picked up on his travels. The foodie list was a reminder of all that we are missing. But it made me smile, too. When our ties to the outside world are mitigated by the sterility of Zoom, reading his words felt like I was watching over his shoulder as he cooked. They were a necessary corrective, a connection that did my heart and my stomach good.

’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.