By all rights, this should be a hopeful moment for those who work to recruit and support international students.
Vaccinations have picked up, with President Biden pledging that most adults in America should be innoculated against Covid-19 by the Fourth of July, well in advance of the new semester. Applications from abroad are up for the fall — although not all colleges are seeing equal growth in interest and there are trouble spots, most notably China
Rather than optimism, what I hear is worry — about ongoing consular closures, visa backlogs, and travel restrictions. The current situation is the antithesis of the mantra of the baseball movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” What if students want to come, but they can’t make it here?
Carol Kim is among those anxiously monitoring visa-appointment wait times. Kim is senior vice president of enrollment management and strategic partnerships at the New School, where international students make up nearly 40 percent of the student body, drawn to its top programs in design, music, and the performing arts.
This year, 250 New School students, most in their first year, studied at partner universities in China, France, Israel, and South Korea. Students were able to be part of a New School cohort, while using studio and performance facilities at the local institutions.
But if remote learning has to stretch into another year, the model simply isn’t sustainable, Kim said. It’s too much of a burden for the partners, who absorbed between 20 and 150 New School students apiece. “We can’t overstay our welcome,” she said. Students may also not have the patience for a second year of online studies.
That means the New School, like many colleges, must bank on getting international students back to campus. Yet, around the world, more than half of the U.S. consulates remain closed or are only scheduling emergency appointments, including, as of last week, those in China and India. Elsewhere, the appointments are phantoms, canceled as consular officials struggle to catch up.
Even if regular processing resumes, Kim worries about the impact of two classes’ worth of student-visa applicants, along with all the other travelers seeking to come to the United States. “It’s getting close, it’s getting really close,” she said.
In a letter
sent Thursday, the American Council on Education and 40 other higher ed groups called on the secretaries of State and Homeland Security to take action now to allow international students to return.
April is a critical month when students must begin the visa process, the organizations note.
Among the steps they urge the government to take:
- Prioritize the processing of student and scholar visas and work authorizations,
- Waive in-person interview requirements for student applicants,
- Relax visa rules to permit new students to come to the U.S. even if their classes will continue to be online, and
- Exempt students from restrictions barring travelers from certain countries, including Brazil. China, and South Africa, from the U.S.
One Brazilian mother, whose son was accepted to a Northeastern private college on early decision, finds herself coping with uncertainty. Last year, some Brazilian students traveled to third countries, such as Mexico, to get visas and quarantine before coming to the U.S., but that route is difficult and expensive.
“Regarding contingency plans, we’re living one day at a time,” she told me.
that the Biden administration could lift some of the international-travel restrictions by late spring. Notably, though, CNBC does not mention easing the prohibition on travelers from China, which accounts for a third of all international students on American campuses.
Brian Meagher, vice president of analytics at Shorelight, has pulled together a data visualizaton
to show the potential impact of current travel restrictions on colleges’ international enrollments. By Meagher’s calculation, 1272 institutions are high risk — that is, at least a quarter of their international students come from countries where travelers are currently prohibited from entering the U.S.