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The University of California will cap international enrollments to admit more in-state students. Is that a false framing? And a government watchdog calls out problems in DHS’s administration of international-student programs.

New Limits on International Students

Prospective international students who have been California dreaming may want to come up with a back-up plan — the state budget that went into effect last Thursday will limit the share of international and out-of-state students at the University of California’s most popular campuses, in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego. 

Nonresident enrollment at the three campuses will be reduced to 18 percent of the student body over the next five years. Currently, about a quarter of Berkeley undergraduates come from outside of California. 

In recent years, University of California officials have deliberately increased international enrollments, citing both educational and financial benefits. Across the U.S., many colleges have done so, yet there’s something that makes the UCs, and these campuses in particular, stand out: As I’ve written before, the idea of crowding out is largely a myth, but during the height of the international-student boom, Berkeley and UCLA increased foreign enrollments while the number of in-state students declined.

The data visualization with that article has been lost to website updates, but I was able to search my files to find the original U.S. Department of Education enrollment figures: Berkeley’s 2012 freshman class had 422 more international students than in 2006, while the number of California residents fell by 797. During the same period, UCLA added 855 international students, while in-state students dropped by 409. While I haven’t done a more recent analysis, that’s important context to a long-simmering debate.

In exchange for the cap, the budget allocates more money to the University of California — $459 million to offset losses in nonresident tuition. The budget also substantially increases state funding for financial aid. Still, the response by the university system has been somewhat lukewarm, with a spokesperson telling the San Francisco Chronicle that there are concerns the plan could “potentially lead to unanticipated outcomes.”

No doubt this caution reflects uncertainty around state funding for higher ed. California’s coffers are flush now — but what about next year or in five years, when the enrollment reductions go fully into effect? It also gets at a point made by experts, that the impact of international students is not completely captured in apples-to-apples comparisons of enrollments. Nonresident students pay three times as much in tuition and fees as their California classmates. Without their presence, could in-state enrollments have been maintained during during economic downturns?

In California, though, this is complicated by ongoing debates about college access. Simply put, California’s colleges — and especially its most selective UC campuses — don’t reflect the demographics of this very diverse state. Given the persistent racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic gaps in college attainment here, admitting more international students can be problematic optically.

But that framing — if someone gets in, then someone else gets left out — may be a false choice. As Brendan Cantwell of Michigan State notes in a blog post, there’s no need to see seats in colleges as a fixed resource:

“This assumption is based on the desire for some campuses — say the ones in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego — to maintain selective admissions to keep their rankings and prestige up. We don’t need to have a scarcity mindset.”

Why not spend more state funds on higher ed AND pocket the extra revenue coming from students from outside California borders? In fact, there’s no reason the additional tuition funds coming from international students couldn’t go to tackling access challenges. 

By making increased state funding contingent on out-of-state enrollment caps, the California budget presents the choice as a binary. It implicitly pits international students against Californians in a way that is both unhelpful and unfortunate. 

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USCIS Ombudsman: More Coordination Needed

Agencies within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that have responsibility for international-student programs and oversight need to do a better job of communicating with one another and with college officials, a new report to Congress says.

The ombudsman for the Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which adjudicates international-student applications for change of status and work authorization, called out USCIS for having “inadequate lines of communication and data exchange” with the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which maintains the student-visa database. The lack of coordination and connections was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the problems flagged by the ombudsman:

  • “Exceptionally long” processing times for USCIS paperwork. The agency is taking from 9 to 16 months to adjudicate a change of status to an F-1 student visa.
  • A lack of responsiveness by USCIS and SEVP to requests for guidance about students’ visa status during the pandemic. When the agencies did respond, they often were unable to answer students’ and colleges’ questions.
  • Poor coordination between the two agencies. As an example, the ombudsman cited a decision by SEVP to terminate the records of international students who were not taking in-person classes in fall 2020. That could result in result in some colleges with large foreign-student populations having to submit thousands of individual requests for data fixes and reinstatement.

In particular, the report warned about slowdowns in the processing of applications for Optional Practical Training, the work program for international students. The ombudsman’s office said it received hundreds of requests for case assistance in late 2020 and early 2021 related to delays in OPT application receipts. Between December 2020 and February 2021, the ombudsman received 638 requests, almost 20 times as many as the same months in 2019 and 2020.

These findings will likely sound familiar to many international educators — and they should. The ombudsman’s office based its conclusions on a survey of college administrators and 19 stakeholder forums. 

The report includes several recommendations for action including:

  • Establishing a Homeland Security working group on international students to identify and share best practices, develop and issue coordinated guidance, create a unified data set, and resolve conflicts in program operations.
  • Improve training for college officials in charge of student-visa oversight on issues such as fraud and national-security vulnerabilities.
  • Relax rules about the sharing of individual students’ information to set up a process to allow students to waive, with written permission, privacy issues so that college administrators can contact USCIS on their behalf. Currently, USCIS limits who can receive case-specific information and assistance to the applicants and their legal representatives.

Colleges and international students, I’d love to hear your take on these proposed changes. You can email me with all your feedback, ideas, and suggestions.

Around the Globe

A panel of federal judges ruled a Harvard student can’t proceed with a class-action lawsuit to force a study-abroad provider to pay refunds for programs canceled during the pandemic. 

Tech workers mounting a legal challenge to OPT fired back at 150 colleges for their support of the work program for international students, calling it “nakedly political.” 

The U.S. House passed its version of legislation to improve America’s technological competitiveness with China and invest billions in research.

President Biden will nominate University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann to be the U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Australia has once again closed university campuses after isolated cases of Covid’s Delta variant triggered a new round of restrictions.

Pro-Palestinian hackers have stolen the personal information of Israeli students and begun leaking it online.

Duolingo, the language-learning company that moved more into academic English testing during the pandemic, has filed to go public.

The British Council is selling its stake in IELTS, the English-language test, in India.

Chinese students in Australia regularly self-censor because they fear harassment from classmates and repercussions from Beijing, a Human Rights Watch report concludes.

For a political-philosophy professor in Hong Kong, visiting former students in prison has become routine.

Some fields of study, such as law and anthropology, could be decimated in Burmese universities after the Myanmar junta’s mass suspension of professors linked to the civil-disobedience movement.

In the U.S., young-adult vaccination rates are low. In South Korea, students are volunteering to take a notoriously difficult college-admissions exam in order to jump the queue for the Covid vaccine.

Want the latest news between editions? Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest.

And finally…

If newsletters are a little slimmer in the next few weeks, well, maybe it means that there’s a moment of calm in what has been an eventful period for international education. But also…I’m busy making a podcast and public-radio documentary!

That’s right, I’m collaborating with APM Reports to produce an audio documentary and in-depth report about how the United States became a beacon for students from around the globe and what’s at stake if that fades.

I’ll have updates in the coming weeks about how to download the special or where to hear it on your local NPR station.

‘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.