Colleges and universities are in furious upheaval in the wake of strict, unexpected rules announced this week by the Trump administration that would bar hundreds of thousands of international students from studying in the United States this fall.
The new rules, prohibiting international students located here from taking exclusively online courses for the fall semester, come as many colleges are announcing that most classes will have to take place virtually because of the threat of the coronavirus.
Schools are vowing to push back against the federal guidance, which is expected to become binding, calling it harmful for both students and their institutions. Harvard president Larry Bacow called the new policy a “blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said her office is preparing to sue the Trump administration over the new regulations and has been in touch with colleges in the state to help protect students’ ability to study in the United States this fall.
“As our colleges and universities navigate this unprecedented pandemic and grapple with how to continue teaching students, the Trump Administration has found ways to create more uncertainty and disruption,” Healey said in a statement Tuesday. “This decision from [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is cruel, it’s illegal, and we will sue to stop it.”
More than a million international students come to the United States every year to earn a degree that will help them land better jobs, and some remain after graduation.
Many pay full tuition, and taking online classes from their home countries is a poor substitute, especially with sometimes-spotty Internet and the time difference. They are paying not just for the American degree, but the chance to network and gain work and research experiences. To save money, many travel home only rarely.
Bacow said Harvard, like many schools, took care to develop a plan for the fall that would keep students safe. He worried the federal plan leaves students few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.
“This guidance undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard,” he wrote.
There are 77,000 international students with active US study visas in Massachusetts and another 32,000 in the rest of New England. The state ranks fourth nationwide for its number of foreign students, and Northeastern University, with 16,000, ranks third in the country. California has the most foreign students, 185,000.
In normal times, international students are not permitted to take more than one online course per semester.
The guidance issued this week by the Department of Homeland Security says students on study visas whose schools will operate entirely online this fall will not be allowed to remain in the United States.
One exception is for colleges operating a hybrid model, with some classes online but others in person. Students at such schools will be able to remain in the country and take more than one class online, the federal plan says.
And that exception does not apply to students enrolled in English language programs or vocational schools, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.
An ICE spokeswoman said it is unclear when Homeland Security will issue a final rule. The plan was developed by representatives from several government agencies that assessed the use of remote learning by foreign students in light of COVID-19.
“The group determined that three options – remote learning from outside the U.S., in-person classes and a hybrid model that combined both in-person and online classes – provided the best options for flexibility for nonimmigrant students to continue their studies at U.S. schools,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
Colleges said the new rules caught them off guard.
Officials at UMass Amherst, home to 3,500 international students, sent them a hasty note on Monday evening, urging them not to panic or leave the country abruptly and saying the confusing plan will likely change.
“Today’s . . . guidance, unfortunately, is a continuation of consistently poorly written and unsatisfactorily considered federal public policy on immigration. This will undoubtedly lead to congressional push-back and perhaps litigation as well,” wrote Kenneth J. Reade, director of international student and scholar services.
The new policy, if unchanged, could be especially detrimental to schools like UMass Boston, which has said the campus will remain entirely closed this fall with no in-person classes. That likely means none of the school’s 1,200 undergraduate and graduate international students will be allowed to live in the United States.
UMass system president Martin T. Meehan called for the policy to be revoked, saying “nothing could be more disruptive” for international students or universities. There are 7,200 international students across the five-campus system, his office said.
If a school adopts a hybrid model, Meehan wrote, it puts pressure on faculty to teach in person and pressure on staff to keep dorms and dining halls open. Worse, he wrote, if schools have to again shift suddenly online if the virus worsens, international students would be forced to leave the country immediately.
“In short, the ICE guidance is cruel to valued members of our community while being counter-productive and destructive to one of the most important institutions we have: American higher education,” Meehan wrote.
International students said they are worried, confused, and frustrated.
Tehut Biru, a rising senior at Dartmouth College from Ethiopia, said she is waiting to hear from college officials how students can maintain their visa status and continue their education in the United States. The rules issued by ICE seem to indicate that even if the institution is on a hybrid system, international students can’t take too many online classes, Biru said.
Biru, who has been living on Dartmouth’s campus since the college went online this past spring, said being forced to return to Ethiopia would make finishing her degree challenging since the technology doesn’t always work, and recently the Ethiopian government temporarily shut down the Internet, she said.
“Going home is impossible, given the pandemic,” Biru said. “Continuing a remote education in Ethiopia will not be possible for me under these circumstances.”
Biru said international students in the United States have been in a particularly vulnerable position since the pandemic hit. They’ve lost internship opportunities, part-time jobs, and income, and are far away and worried about their families. Many can’t return home because airports are restricting travel.
“The recent ICE announcement feels like the last straw in an increasing number of insurmountable obstacles,' Biru said. “We feel confused, hopeless as well as helpless.”
The guidelines have also made students overseas uncertain whether they want to return to Boston-area campuses in the fall.
Pavithra Rajesh, 18, and a sophomore at Northeastern University from India, said she and her brother, a student at Boston University, had been looking forward to coming to campus this fall. But the visa issue has made their decisions more complicated.
“If we do go back, and the school ends up shifting back to complete online courses . . . we would be in a very difficult situation,” said Rajesh, an assistant editor of Northeastern’s international student magazine. “Flights home are expensive, we don’t know what the airport situation will be in our own country or city, and it’s a situation neither of us want to be in.”
But Rajesh said finishing the past spring semester online from India with the time difference was grueling. She was up until 4 a.m. most nights for class.
“I don’t know if I can sustain that for an entire semester, even with considerations the university may make for students in different time zones,” Rajesh said.
Shashwata Naik, 25, who is earning his master’s degree in industrial engineering at Northeastern, said the ICE guidelines came as a shock.
Naik said he made an investment to come to Boston and enroll in Northeastern’s graduate program, hoping it would lead to work experience in the United States that would help catapult his career when he returned to India. But the pandemic has upended those plans, with classes online and networking opportunities limited. Now, there’s the additional worry about his visa status.
“Everything together, it’s a bit overwhelming,” Naik said. “We’d all like some clarity.”