Getting a Grip on New ICE Foreign Student Regulations as Critics Lose Theirs

On Monday, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released new guidance that will prohibit foreign students from attending U.S. colleges or universities if those institutions are offering an entirely online course load. The reactions, however, from some corners of the academic and political world have been ignorant of both the facts and the reality facing many lower and middle income American families.

“We can’t remain a world leader in higher education if we shut the door on our students’ futures,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) declared in a tweet that conveniently ignored the dimmer futures of his own constituents.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted that the rules were “senseless, cruel, and xenophobic,” while Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he intends “on exploring all avenues through which [the rules]can be stopped.”

The American Council on Education (ACE) lambasted the guidelines as “horrifying,” and claimed they would unduly pressure universities to open to in-person classes in order to keep foreign students to stem financial bleeding. One of the benefits for institutions that enroll international students is that they pay full tuition, which for some schools is a critical part of their revenue stream. According to the Wall Street Journal, at some universities foreign nationals comprise about 15 to 20 percent of their enrollment, but a represent a larger share of tuition revenue.

Not surprisingly, social media provided the least educated responses. For example, under the hashtag #Studentban, numerous college professors discussed plans to organize a single in-person class as a means to circumvent the ICE rules, while a group at the University of California-Berkeley talked about creating “fake classes” to do the same.

Ironically, these corruptly-creative schemes demonstrate the cavalier ignorance to real concerns regarding the foreign students. For example, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report found that in FY2018, 68,593 visiting students, or 3.7 percent, remained in the country after their visas had expired. That was the highest overstay rate of any visa eligible group.

Another related issue that the new rules may help to combat are visa mills, which are private institutions that take tuition fees from international students but receive little oversight and offer even less educational value.

Many critics of the new rules, which apply to those pursuing a full-time degree (F-1 visa) or who are enrolled in vocational studies (M-1 visa), have distorted what the rules actually would do. First, they are a modification of exemptions to online course requirements granted last spring after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many schools to close. Under the new guidance, foreign students will be able to take up to three courses online, which is a generous accommodation.

The proposed guidelines issued by ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which oversees nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors, still must go through the normal public comment period.

International students do have options, including transferring to a school offering a hybrid course load or in-person classes, or they can take on a reduced course load, according to the ICE guidance. Lastly, the number of students likely to be impacted has been overstated. The Chronicle of Education, presently estimates only 9 percent of all college-level institutions plan to hold classes entirely online.

In the 2018-19 academic year, there were a total of 1,095,299 foreign students, most of whom were from China (almost 370,000) or India (more than 202,000), according to the annual Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report.

While one can feel empathy for international students facing uncertain futures, where is a similar concern for the thousands of low- and middle-income Americans who have even fewer options than foreign students?  

A recent McKinsey survey 40 percent of low-income students are reconsidering college due to the impact COVID-19 on their financial situation. And the same day as ICE’s announcement, an Associated Press analysis of federal financial aid data showed 70,000 fewer applications had been filed, as of mid-June. For many of the 13 million American students who depend on financial aid to attend college, those plans have not simply been disrupted, but ended.

One such student is Jacob Williams, who graduated from high school and enrolled in college last year, but who has been forced to drop out due to financial pressures on his family.

“I need to earn money for the family,” the Chicagoan told The Hill. Jacob’s story is not dissimilar from millions of other American families facing a harsh new reality.

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