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“It’s Getting Close”

By all rights, this should be a hopeful moment for those who work to recruit and support international students.

Vaccinations have picked up, with President Biden pledging that most adults in America should be innoculated against Covid-19 by the Fourth of July, well in advance of the new semester. Applications from abroad are up for the fall — although not all colleges are seeing equal growth in interest and there are trouble spots, most notably China.

Rather than optimism, what I hear is worry — about ongoing consular closures, visa backlogs, and travel restrictions. The current situation is the antithesis of the mantra of the baseball movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” What if students want to come, but they can’t make it here?

Carol Kim is among those anxiously monitoring visa-appointment wait times. Kim is senior vice president of enrollment management and strategic partnerships at the New School, where international students make up nearly 40 percent of the student body, drawn to its top programs in design, music, and the performing arts.

This year, 250 New School students, most in their first year, studied at partner universities in China, France, Israel, and South Korea. Students were able to be part of a New School cohort, while using studio and performance facilities at the local institutions.

But if remote learning has to stretch into another year, the model simply isn’t sustainable, Kim said. It’s too much of a burden for the partners, who absorbed between 20 and 150 New School students apiece. “We can’t overstay our welcome,” she said. Students may also not have the patience for a second year of online studies.

That means the New School, like many colleges, must bank on getting international students back to campus. Yet, around the world, more than half of the U.S. consulates remain closed or are only scheduling emergency appointments, including, as of last week, those in China and India. Elsewhere, the appointments are phantoms, canceled as consular officials struggle to catch up.

Even if regular processing resumes, Kim worries about the impact of two classes’ worth of student-visa applicants, along with all the other travelers seeking to come to the United States. “It’s getting close, it’s getting really close,” she said.

In a letter sent Thursday, the American Council on Education and 40 other higher ed groups called on the secretaries of State and Homeland Security to take action now to allow international students to return. April is a critical month when students must begin the visa process, the organizations note.

Among the steps they urge the government to take:

  • Prioritize the processing of student and scholar visas and work authorizations,
  • Waive in-person interview requirements for student applicants,
  • Relax visa rules to permit new students to come to the U.S. even if their classes will continue to be online, and 
  • Exempt students from restrictions barring travelers from certain countries, including Brazil. China, and South Africa, from the U.S.

One Brazilian mother, whose son was accepted to a Northeastern private college on early decision, finds herself coping with uncertainty. Last year, some Brazilian students traveled to third countries, such as Mexico, to get visas and quarantine before coming to the U.S., but that route is difficult and expensive.

“Regarding contingency plans, we’re living one day at a time,” she told me.

CNBC reports that the Biden administration could lift some of the international-travel restrictions by late spring. Notably, though, CNBC does not mention easing the prohibition on travelers from China, which accounts for a third of all international students on American campuses.

Brian Meagher, vice president of analytics at Shorelight, has pulled together a data visualizaton to show the potential impact of current travel restrictions on colleges’ international enrollments. By Meagher’s calculation, 1272 institutions are high risk — that is, at least a quarter of their international students come from countries where travelers are currently prohibited from entering the U.S.

Meagher’s dashboard, which also includes tuition-revenue estimates, can be filtered by state, institutional type, and other factors. The data is anonymized, but Meagher told me that colleges interested in seeing their individual institutional data and where they fall on the risk spectrum can contact him.

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Tracking Visa Declines

The number of new international students in the U.S. fell by 72 percent in 2020, according to just-released data from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

The drop was especially stark in August 2020, when 91 percent fewer new students started at U.S. colleges than the previous year. The total number of active student-visa records tumbled by 18 percent, while participation in optional practical training declined by 12 percent.

Visa trends for the top-sending countries, China, India, and South Korea, largely tracked with the overall downward shift. The Northeastern U.S., the early epicenter of the pandemic, saw the largest decreases in student numbers.

SEVP has sporadically released visa data, but the new SEVIS by the Numbers report is its first analysis of the pandemic year. It comes, however, with a few caveats: The data include both F-1 and M-1, or vocational, visas as well as information for K-12 students. It also measures active student records, meaning that some students enrolled from overseas, such as new students who were not yet issued visas, are not counted.

International Ed as a Priority

Is international education fading as a priority for American colleges?

A recent survey of senior international administrators found that 40 percent said internationalization was given high priority in their institutional strategic plans. A decade ago, 60 percent did. 

I asked Darla K. Deardorff, executive director of the Association of International Education Administrators, which conducted the survey, what she made of the finding. She noted that the share of respondents saying that international ed was a campus priority had been trending downward for several years.

But she also said that other parts of the survey seemingly offered a counternarrative. In a separate open-ended question about changes to the senior-international officer role, the comments were “overwhelmingly” positive, Deardorff said, with people saying their jobs had become more “central, prominent, expanded, and relevant.”

On social media, some commenters suggested that internationalization efforts may have matured beyond needing an explicit reference in planning documents, while others questioned whether inclusion in a strategic plan necessarily correlated to active campuswide internationalization efforts.

For more: I took stock of internationalization in U.S. higher ed and asked, Is it the end of a golden era?

Check this out: For the first time, the majority of SIOs, 55 percent, are women, the AIEA survey found. ICYMI, I spoke last week with an expert on women’s leadership in international education.

Around the Globe

The U.S. Department of Education has updated how Covid emergency funds may be used but has not yet said whether undocumented and international students can qualify for aid.

The House of Representatives passed legislation to give undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children legal protections and a path to citizenship. 

Students at New York University Shanghai say they were wrongfully detained and roughed up by Chinese plainclothes police.

Tufts University said it will close its Confucius Institute and instead pursue more direct relationships with Chinese university partners.

Academic exchanges are a first step for the U.S. to reengage with China, a longtime China correspondent and scholar says, including restarting the Fulbright program and stopping vilification of Confucius Institutes.

A former international student says the University of Californa at Berkeley failed to notify him of the correct filing deadline for his OPT work authorization, leading to his deportation. He’s suing.

A student-led petition is seeking to block a Rutgers professor from teaching about Hinduism, saying that her scholarship misrepresents their faith.

The University of California at Los Angeles can shield the identities of Palestinian rights activists to protect them from harassment and guard their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, a judge ruled.

A San Diego law professor is under investigation for an offensive phrase he used in a blog post about China and the coronavirus.

Security forces in Myanmar have occupied at least 60 school and university campuses.

A gunman in Afghanistan fired on a university bus, killing a student and the driver and wounding several lecturers.

Students in South Africa plan to shut down public universities unless the government agrees to forgive student debt and allow free registration for the 2021 academic year.

Half of the instructors at English-language centers in Britain have lost their jobs because of Covid.

American colleges should be wary of money-laundering risks after cases in Canada and the UK in which international students paid tuition with large amounts of cash, one expert warns.

Congratulations to the eight colleges that are winners of the 2021 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization.

Got news tips or story ideas? Send them to For updated coverage, follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally…

Find a way to travel, especially when you’re young, because it will forever broaden your perspective. It’s a life skill well worth investing in. I can’t think of a gift that keeps on giving as much as having had a good travel experience.

Travel author Rick Steves of the value of study abroad at a talk sponsored by the Fund for Education Abroad.

‘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.