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The Trump administration has proposed placing strict caps on the amount of time international students can study in the United States, replacing a system that permitted students to stay until they completed their degree.

Students who wish to be in the U.S. for more than four years would have to petition for an extension. And some students, including those from countries that are designated as state sponsors of terror or that have high visa overstay rates, would be granted visas for just two years.

The proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on Friday, is the latest example of the Trump administration’s use of regulation to reshape America’s international-student landscape. While the change may seem obscure — minor, even — it represents a significant break with past practice and could inject an enormous amount of uncertainty into the plans of students, many of whom will have to come to the U.S. with no guarantee they’ll be able to earn a degree or work post-graduation on OPT.

As with other earlier policy changes, it could send a message that the U.S. is unwelcoming to students from abroad, many fear.

The measure has also drawn fire for provisions that would place tighter restrictions on students from countries with overstay rates above 10 percent. Critics argue that if overstays are truly a problem — in 2019, government-reported rates for international students were about 3 percent — this approach penalizes countries, mostly in Africa, that account for only a small proportion of total annual overstays.

The administration justified the regulation in part on national security concerns. Admitting students only for a fixed period of time and requiring them to apply for extensions would allow authorities additional opportunities for vetting and oversight. “Amending the relevant regulations is critical in improving program oversight mechanisms, preventing foreign adversaries from exploiting the country’s education environment, and properly enforcing and strengthening U.S. immigration laws,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy homeland security secretary, said in a statement.

But Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said that the government was trying to “insert itself into academic issues” by assuming the discretion to determine whether students have legitimate academic reasons to extend their stay. (Here’s NAFSA’s response to the rule.)

On Twitter, I asked for your pressing questions and concerns about the proposed regulation, and Banks and other policy and legal experts were generous in helping me break down some of the implications. I got dozens and dozens of queries, and here are answers to some of the most often asked.

How would the proposed rule affect current international students?

The proposed rule essentially starts the clock on current students, allowing them to stay in the U.S. until the end date of their programs, not to exceed four years from the effective date of the regulation. One wrinkle: Students who travel outside the country during the transition period would then be subject to the new fixed-term admission rule, including the more-restrictive two-year provisions.

It typically takes more than four years to earn a Ph.D. Are doctoral students exempt from the rule?

Doctoral students would be subject to the four-year restriction and would have to apply to the Department of Homeland Security for an extension of stay. The same is true for students in bachelor’s degree programs, which often take more than four years to complete. Extensions would be granted at the department’s discretion, based on academic, medical, and other grounds, and denials may not be appealed.

How would the provisions apply to transfer students or those moving from one educational level to another?

The proposal would limit the number of times a student could switch to another program at the same educational level. Any student who has completed a program at one educational level would be allowed to change to another program at the same educational level no more than two additional times. It also would restrict “reverse matriculation,” that is, moving to a program at a lower educational level. The rule wouldn’t affect students pursuing higher degrees.

What does the rule mean for OPT?

The most popular question! If students remain in the U.S. beyond the four-year window to take part in optional practical training, the popular work program for international graduates, then they would have to apply for an extension to stay. The same is true for STEM OPT. Given that OPT typically lasts for one to three years, it seems likely that a large share of students would require extensions to participate.

Under the proposed rule, students would be prohibited from working while the extension application is pending. This provision alarms experts who point out that DHS already has a backlog for issuing OPT work authorizations.

However, international students who have employment authorizations already filed and pending on the rule’s effective date would not have to file for an extension or refile their applications.

Will this rule be implemented?

If only I had a crystal ball! The proposed rule was released just weeks before the presidential election, and the 30-day comment period will close with only days to spare. Government officials will then have to review the comments before finalizing the rule. A few years ago, when the Obama administration proposed changes to OPT, it had to ask for a several-month extension in a related court case in order to process the more than 50,000 comments submitted. And comments can lead officials to modify or amend regulatory proposals, although there’s no guarantee.

That said, regulatory actions don’t require congressional action, and executive-branch officials can move on their own timeline. Still, if President Trump loses and if the rule isn’t implemented by the January inauguration, it seems unlikely a Biden administration would pursue it.

Have additional questions or concerns about the regulation? Send them to me at

Charges Dropped Against Chinese Researcher

Federal prosecutors abruptly dropped charges against a Chinese scientist at the University of Virginia who had been arrested on allegations of stealing proprietary software code.

In asking for the charges to be dismissed, government lawyers said “some portion” of the material found on Hu Haizhou’s computer was “in a shared space that [he] had authorized access” to. The dismissal could be a setback for the Justice Department, which has aggressively pursued cases against Chinese researchers in the U.S.

But a spokesman for the University of Virginia told the Wall Street Journal that the university was continuing its own investigation and that Hu “did not have permission to access or take the files and was repeatedly denied permission to access them.” His adviser told the newspaper that he believed Hu had improperly taken the code. The researcher is now back in China.

Enrollment Drop Confirmed

The number of international students was expected to drop this fall — and now the first enrollment figures confirm it. International undergraduate enrollments fell more than 11 percent from the previous year, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse, the deepest decline of any demographic group.

At the graduate level, international student numbers dropped less sharply, by 5 percent. But graduate enrollments were up overall and among every other group, making the international dip an anamoly.

This data, collected as of September 10, represent only 22 percent of all institutions, so it will be interesting to see if and how trends shift as more colleges share their enrollment figures.

For more context: My colleagues at Open Campus took a look at how the pandemic is affecting who is going to college in America this fall and where they’re studying.

Authoritarianism and Higher Education

People with higher levels of education are less likely to express preferences for authoritarian political leadership, according to a new study from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

The association between higher levels of education and lower preferences for authoritarianism is particularly high in the U.S., the researchers found. That’s not necessarily true around the world — in countries like Iraq and Kazakhstan, the relationship is weak.

One reason that American education may be effective at countering authoritarianism is that the liberal arts is at its core, the authors suggest. In general, they find that liberal arts majors are less inclined toward authoritarianism that those in business or STEM fields.

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Around the Globe

There’s a pronounced partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on restricting the number of Chinese students on American campuses and on limiting scientific research collaboration with China.

A University of Cincinnati professor who called covid the “Chinese virus” has been placed on administrative leave. Meanwhile, a suspended Syracuse University is asking to be reinstated after he used “Wuhan flu” and the “Chinese Communist Party virus” in his syllabus.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, whose election to a sixth term has been contested, is calling for more patriotic education in the nation’s universities.

Two Australian researchers have reportedly been barred from China, a reprisal for Australia’s revocation of the visas of two Chinese academics.

A record number of international undergraduates have been accepted at British universities despite covid.

Chinese students are bristling against campus lockdowns that are intended to keep them safe from the coronavirus.

After long border closures, foreign academics will be permitted to return to China, but international students will still be kept out.

A report warns that academic freedom in Brazil is under threat.

Thai students defied their university’s ban on campus protest.

Authorities in Zimbabwe took a student government leader into custody and then arrested nine other students who protested his detention.

Two defendants from China have pleaded guilty in a scheme to use fake passports to allow people to fraudulently take English-proficiency tests.

And finally…

Shamsea Alizada could have died when a tutoring center where she was studying was attacked; a suicide bomber killed dozens of her friends and classmates. Instead, two years later, she is being lauded for earning the highest score on Afghanistan’s national university exam. Alizada’s story is both emblematic of the gains in education and social mobility women in Afghanistan have made, and of how far they have to go.

Interested to know more? Check out my portrait of the Asian University for Women, which sees educating women in Afghanistan and throughout Asia as a way to reduce poverty and bring about social change.

’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.