UCSD campus
Students on the promenade by RIMAC Arena on campus at UC San Diego. Photo courtesy of UCSD

The Trump administration wants foreign university students to leave the country if their classes are all taught online — clouding the future of hundreds of thousands and potentially straining budgets at schools struggling to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

About 1.1 million foreign students attended U.S. higher education institutions in the 2018-19 school year, according to a report  issued by the State Department and the Institute of International Education, and they made up 5.5% of the entire U.S. higher education enrollment.

Most U.S. universities have not decided yet whether they will have all online classes, in-person teaching, or some sort of hybrid when classes start again in the fall.

The visa order is likely to affect just a portion of the total number of students. Nevertheless, the University of California and USC joined Harvard University and MIT in a lawsuit to try to stop the new order by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The University of California’s legacy and leadership would not be the same without the international students and faculty who have come to this institution,” said UC Board of Regents Chair John A. Pérez in announcing the suit. “To UC’s international students, I say: ‘We support you and regret the additional chaos ICE’s action has caused.’ ”

Foreign students‘ financial contributions are keenly felt in some schools and communities, where they pay higher tuition bills than some local students, and support real estate markets and local jobs.

More than 160,000 international students attend California colleges and universities, according to NAFSA, an association of international educators — including about 40,000 in the UC system and 11,000 at Cal State schools.

The new rules would affect students on F-1 academic visas and M-1 vocational education visas. International students currently in the U.S. would likely be faced with a few unpleasant options: attend class in-person and run the risk of contracting COVID-19, transfer at the last minute to another university, or undertake a costly journey back to their home countries.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli told CNN that the order would “encourage schools to reopen” their campuses in the fall and that the department was being flexible by allowing students to take some online classes.

“We’re communicating with the schools and most of them are going to a hybrid model — some online, some in person,” Cuccinelli said. “If a school isn’t going to open or they’re going to be 100 percent online, then we wouldn’t expect people to be here for that.”

Global Competition for Talent

Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy at NAFSA, said the new policy sends the wrong message to those students as the United States competes globally for academic talent with countries including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

“While we’re struggling with this current administration in terms of our message, the rest of the world is sort of waiting for us to figure it out,” Banks said. “They’re out there saying, ‘The United States doesn’t want you, we do.’ ”

Morteza Dehghani, a USC professor of psychology and computer science, posted a tweet along with other USC professors telling international students to email him for help arranging in-person instruction in the fall.

“I’ve received hundreds of emails since the tweet. Some of the emails are very emotional, you can feel that the students need support,” he said. “They’re scared, a lot of them are under financial pressure. They’ve already paid for their housing. A lot of them can’t afford to pay for another round-trip airline ticket, especially in these circumstances.”

Dehghani noted that international students make up a quarter of USC’s population, and that the regulations could potentially impact international student enrollment into the coming years.

“At least in Southern California, we have this opinion that we thrive when we bring the world’s greatest minds to our shores. So not only will this ruling will directly push them away, but it also makes it less likely for other students to apply and come here,” he said.

Revenue That Benefits U.S. Students

Foreign students contributed $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy during 2018, the Institute of International Education report says, citing the U.S. Department of Commerce.

They supported around 460,000 jobs in the United States in the 2018-19 academic year, estimates NAFSA. The majority of these jobs are in higher education itself, but accommodation, retail, transportation, and health insurance also benefit, it concludes.

China was the largest contributor to the foreign student body in the United States, followed by India and Saudi Arabia, the reports says.

Foreign students in the United States often pay more to attend school than local students, including paying “out-of-state” tuition at publicly-funded state schools and additional charges aimed at oversees entrants.

Often first-generation college students, international students can pay up to $65,000 per year to attend the University of California or $79,000 to attend USC, among the top destinations nationwide for students from foreign countries. They do not have the same access to federal financial aid that U.S. residents do.

Big schools that are household names are likely to have a long waiting list of possible enrollees, available to take the place of any international student, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education.

However, he said, “it’s no secret that many international students pay full tuition, and that this is a source of revenue that enables schools to offer student aid and other discounts to other students.”

Reuters and CalMatters contributed to this article.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.