scorecardresearch Skip to main content

An irrational assault on higher education

A new Trump policy would force some international students in US schools to go home. It's a callous plan that would cause great economic harm.

All of Harvard University’s undergraduate courses will be taught online this fall and fewer than half the students will be allowed on campus.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

“When foreigners attend our great colleges & want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country.”

Those are the words of the president of the United States, Donald Trump. He tweeted them nearly five years ago. Trump, at that point, seemingly agreed with the most basic notion that foreign students enrich America.

Yet the Trump administration went out of its way to disrupt life for international students Monday, when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced new guidance for student visa holders. International students enrolled in the upcoming fall semester in colleges and universities that move classes completely online because of the coronavirus outbreak won’t be allowed in, or will have to leave the country or transfer to a different university if they are already in the country. Even if the school has a hybrid model, offering some classes online and some in-person, a foreign student won’t be allowed by this policy to enroll in just online classes while staying in the United States.

Such a policy was in place before the pandemic, and then it might have made some amount of sense — a student wouldn’t need a visa to be physically present in the United States if all classes are taught online anyway. But the new guidance is a departure from the more recent federal waiver policy set up to deal with the pandemic: As colleges shifted to online classes, their foreign students were allowed to stay in the United States. Considering the still-raging pandemic, it would make sense to keep those waivers in place.


But now, under the new rule, many foreigners are simply going to drop out, rather than face the prospect of taking virtual classes from their home countries. There are about a million international students in the United States, with half of them coming just from two countries: China and India. Massachusetts ranks in the top five states with the most foreign students with 77,000.


“Time zones are going to be a huge problem,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council. “Indian and Chinese students will have to attend classes from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. And there are countries where access to the right technology is going to be an issue, as well.”

The thinly veiled reason for the policy is to pressure universities to reopen for in-person instruction, using their foreign students (most of whom pay the full tuition price) as hostages. The administration has pretty much admitted that — on the record. “This is now setting the rules for one semester, which we’ll finalize later this month, that will, again, encourage schools to reopen,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, on CNN.

But rather than relenting to the pressure, the reaction from universities to Trump’s new policy has been swift. Barely two days passed before Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed suit in US District Court in Boston challenging Trump’s move. The schools allege that the “directive is arbitrary and capricious because it fails to offer any reasoned basis that could justify the policy.”

With the lawsuit, Harvard and MIT are seeking a temporary injunction on the policy. “ICE’s decision reflects a naked effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen all in-person classes notwithstanding their informed judgment that it is neither safe nor advisable to do so. The effect — perhaps even the goal — is to create chaos for schools and international students alike.”


Foreigners are yet again being used as pawns by the Trump administration. But a move like this one will have far-reaching consequences. In 2018, foreign students spent nearly $45 billion on tuition, living expenses, books, and other costs. Chinese students alone were responsible for $15 billion of that expenditure. At a time when the higher education market is struggling economically due to the pandemic, the potential loss of foreign students could be a huge financial blow.

More importantly, foreign students are a critical source of talent and job-creation. If the policy prevails, it would be a textbook example of the United States shooting itself in the foot. Here’s hoping that the pushback from higher education institutions leads the Trump Administration to come to its senses and leave this group of foreigners in place.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.