College leaders across the country scrambled to close campuses and shift to remote learning as the coronavirus spread. Now they face the very real possibility of a fall semester online.
According to a recent survey
by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 60 percent of colleges are considering or have already decided to remain fully online this fall due to the public-health crisis. If anything, I think that understates things — I haven’t talked to a single college in recent weeks that doesn’t have an all-online option on the table. As one person told me, “There are contingency plans for contingencies now.”
There are challenges to doing fall online for all colleges and for all students. But the problems are especially acute for international students. Here’s why:
Even if social distancing works and campuses are able to reopen for the fall term, it’s a near-certainty that some international students will not to be able to attend. Current students who have gone back home could continue to face travel restrictions. New students and those whose visas have expired will have to deal with visa-application backlogs. Consular offices around the world are currently closed; in China, the earliest visa-appointment slots aren’t until mid-July. Processing delays, limited flights, 14-day quarantines on arrival — all will make it difficult for some international students to be back in time for the start of classes, if at all.
Aside from immuno-comprised students, international students are then perhaps the population most likely to be studying remotely, even in a best-case scenario. But will they want to?
As in the U.S., online learning is viewed as inferior to face-to-face in many parts of the world
— and current classes, hurriedly stood up to salvage the spring semester, are unlikely to convince detractors. A number of countries limit the number of online courses a student can take while studying abroad if they want their degree recognized back home, which can be critical to getting hired by local employers.
China recenty temporarily relaxed
such requirements, but it’s unclear how an extended period of online education would affect degree certification.
The U.S. government also restricts international students to just one distance-education course per semester.
It lifted this provision as part of a broader loosening of student-visa rules
as COVID-19 spread, and most international-student administrators I spoke with said they expect that leeway to continue into the fall semester if campuses have to continue to deliver coursework online. Still, it’s not a given.
Because they are not yet in the country, new students aren’t bound by the visa regulations. But most colleges haven’t historically offered their degree programs online overseas, and despite the crisis, some could still hesitate to extend their offerings to students who have never set foot on campus. And given the option, many international freshmen could choose to defer rather than spend the first semester online. The pipeline of incoming students could abruptly, substantially slow.
The calculus is different for current students, of course. There are disincentives — academic, financial, visa-wise — to pausing in the middle of a degree program. It’s a long-term investment, while the coronavirus and the move to online learning are, hopefully, temporary hiccups.
Still, international students pay a premium to study in the United States, more than they would to stay at home and often more than their American classmates. Do they want to pay for — and forgive the shorthand — Zoom U.?
This isn’t just about course delivery. International students aren’t paying solely for what happens within the four walls of a classroom. They are paying for the residential-college experience, for internships and extracurriculars, to taste another culture, to make new friends. They are coming to our campuses for “the immersive experience of being in the States,” one administrator wrote me. That’s what they value in an American education, and it’s not something they can get through a computer screen.
Now that I’ve thoroughly been a bummer, let me ask you: How is your college preparing for the possibility of an online fall?
, some of you have already been sharing what you’re working on, from developing more intentional, internationally-oriented online programming to taking advantage of study abroad to deliver your coursework in-country. Expect more on this in the coming weeks.
As always, I appreciate your feedback and ideas for coverage. You can reach me at email@example.com.