Last Updated: Nov 4, 2020
University students throughout the country are dealing with the fallout of COVID-19. Whether that’s finding a new place to live, weighing the pros and cons of online versus in-person classes, or deciding if they should put their academic plans on hold, undergraduate and graduate students alike are facing a new reality that university will look dramatically different this fall. Although the pandemic has made it more challenging for all students to return to campus, one group of students in particular is dealing with an extraordinary amount of uncertainty: international students. COVID-19 has made it more difficult for international students to study in the US, and here’s why.
How COVID-19 is impacting international students
On July 6, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a policy requiring international university students to have at least one planned in-person course for the fall semester. If their schools were planning to move to an online-only option, those students would be forced to return home. Fortunately, on July 14, the Trump administration rescinded this plan. After significant pushback and legal action by major institutions like Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, current international students were told they could remain on campus and take classes just like US students—even if those classes were 100% online.
In a climate full of uncertainty and constant change, this reversal was great news for universities looking to instill some calm and normalcy in their international student populations. After all, international students are a significant part of university life on American college campuses. According to the , more than one million international students studied or conducted research at US universities last year. Moreover, international students make up 5.5% of the total US higher education student population.
While the reversal protects international students who have a student visa and are currently pursuing a degree in the States, who haven’t attended classes yet will face a different set of guidelines. For the fall 2020 term, first-year international students won’t be allowed to enter the US if their classes are taught entirely online.
What colleges are doing
In response to these new guidelines, schools like and the published letters and FAQ pages on their websites outlining the information first-year international students need to know about the fall 2020 semester. In both cases, Harvard and USC are only offering online classes, which means first-year international students won’t be allowed to come to the States and live on campus. That said, Harvard is offering first-year international students two options: start their Harvard experience from home and take courses remotely, or defer their start date. These options are being offered at many universities who’ve moved to an online-only model this fall.
First-year international students at schools offering in-person classes
Even if a university is planning to offer some in-person classes, many incoming international students are having difficulty securing visa appointments because US embassies around the world are closed or only offering emergency appointments, according to Stefanie D. Niles, EdD, Vice President for Enrollment and Communications at Even if international students can obtain a visa, Niles says securing a flight to the US will be another hurdle for many since people from certain countries aren’t allowed to enter the US due to “Travel concerns are among the major issues for returning international students too,” she says.
Additionally, Niles points out that like the US, economies from around the world have been impacted by COVID-19, and some international students and their families are feeling new or different financial stress that may prevent them from studying in the States. The good news, she says, is that in light of travel restrictions or other circumstances preventing students from returning to the US, many students are being allowed to continue with remote learning even if they don’t return to campus.
What universities are recommending to students
Now that the ICE decision has been reversed, currently enrolled international students have more options, which is a very positive outcome, says Niles. Ohio Wesleyan is treating each student's situation individually. “The majority of our incoming international students will study remotely from their home countries this fall and will attempt to obtain a visa that will enable them to be on campus in the spring,” she says.
Like many other universities, Niles says her institution is fully prepared to offer an online curriculum to international students to ensure that they can begin their university experience now. But the situation for returning international students varies from school to school and from student to student. “Some are choosing to be remote learners for the fall for the reasons mentioned above, while others plan to be on campus,” she explains.
For Dr. Eddie Lovin, Director of Enrollment Services at , maintaining partnerships and encouraging international students to stay in the US is a high priority for his institution. “We’ve been working with our international students on an individual basis to ensure they can stay enrolled regardless of government regulations or other challenges,” he says. Like many other universities, Cumberland has a diverse student body; Lovin says their international students come from over 40 countries and make up more than 15% of their student population. “The different perspectives that our international students bring to campus is extremely valuable to our community,” he says. That’s why Cumberland staff are making every possible effort to bring international students safely back to campus this fall.
What about US students studying abroad?
Regarding US students who want to study abroad, their options will be limited this fall at best. “Many institutions have canceled their international programs for the fall, and some for the spring as well,” says Niles. US students who desire to study abroad should look forward to the 2021–2022 academic year for potential opportunities, though “at this point, much is unknown about the availability and accessibility of study abroad programs in the coming year.”
If you’re an international student who was planning to study in the US this year, try not to get too discouraged. This wasn’t how you expected your experience to be, but you can still make the most of it whether you’re studying online from your home country or from your dorm on campus. Keep updated on the rapidly changing circumstances and stay in touch with representatives at your university to make the situation as stress-free as possible.
For more information on the coronavirus pandemic and how it’s affecting university life, visit our COVID-19 student resources page.