Universities Can Help Foreign Students by Partially Reopening

Campus of Harvard University (jorgeantonio/Getty Images)
By adopting some minimal in-person instruction, schools such as Harvard could keep international students in the U.S. through a ‘hybrid model.’

Many of my fellow international classmates at Harvard are very worried about their immigration status in light of the Department of Homeland Security’s new rule that requires international students with F-1 visas attending schools with all online classes (such as Harvard) to leave the U.S. or transfer to a school with some in-person instruction.

Leaving the U.S. can be disruptive for the lives of many international students and their research activities, many of which cannot be done online, especially in the physical sciences.

In response, Harvard and MIT have decided to sue the Trump administration and have requested injunctive relief from federal courts. Since it is commonly understood that the power to grant and revoke visas resides in the executive, these well-intentioned legal efforts made by universities to protect their students will likely be futile.

I believe the president’s policy efforts to encourage schools to reopen are also well-intentioned, as research universities remain the lifeblood of the world’s productive capacity, not just America’s. A significant number of students also have stated they will elect to take a leave of absence if their universities remain online, delaying the completion of their education.

The more roadblocks that universities create for students and researchers to physically be on campus, the more America’s economy will be damaged in the long run through derailed investments in research and human capital. International students, many of whom ultimately become legal permanent residents, make up an important component of this long-term investment, as there are approximately 1 million foreign students in the U.S., and a higher fraction of international students are enrolled in graduate studies involving research. For instance, at MIT, 41 percent of graduate students are international (versus only 10 percent of undergrads).

There is, however, a chance that the administration’s efforts could backfire and that more schools will obstinately choose to stay fully online, out of fear of COVID-19 spreading to their campuses and the associated public backlash.

While new COVID-19 cases are now rising again in the U.S., new COVID-19 deaths have continued to fall, creating a quandary for the uncertain future of the disease in the U.S. I applaud forward-thinking schools such as the University of Chicago and Notre Dame for resuming some in-person instruction with various contingencies that would allow them to resume fully online instruction if the virus is still in full force by the autumn. Unfortunately, many schools that claim to know the future of the virus are already committing to online instruction through 2021 rather than being data-dependent.

I propose a third way that could enable all online schools to help their international students under threat of deportation: Attempt to adopt a “hybrid model” of minimal in-person instruction while retaining largely online instruction.

The DHS rule states that students adopting a “hybrid model — that is a mixture of online and in person classes — will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online.”

The vagueness of the rule suggests that in-person instruction can be minimal under such a model, where students could continue to take nearly all of their classes online. Schools could meet the criteria by creating a trivial in-person, one-credit class that international students could enroll in and take pass/fail for minimal credit (so effectively the grade would not impact their GPAs).

For instance, the class could require them to only submit an essay in person at the end of the semester on any subject (without actually having any classroom instruction at all). Alternatively, the class could have a single class in-person meeting with excused absences and some final assignment due online.

Columbia and NYU have committed to creating such minimal in-person learning, and students at the University of Washington have mounted a petition now with more than 15,000 signatures to create such a one-credit class.

Critics may allege that such a class would be fraudulent, but there are no standards for what constitute “in-person classes” in the DHS rule. Many schools such as Harvard already have such trivial placeholder classes for international students working in the U.S. under Curricular Practical Training (CPT), which requires students to take some minimal concurrent coursework, often amounting to only one written essay submitted at the end of their work period.

As an immigrant myself who has gone through visa purgatory many times in the past, I know how stressful navigating the U.S. immigration system can be. I encourage university faculties to adapt and think creatively about how to reopen their schools and to try minimal in-person coursework rather than place all blame on the administration and engage in a long-drawn political fight in the courts that will likely be too slow and too futile to meaningfully help students and researchers.

Jon Hartley is an economics Ph.D. student at Stanford University and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. He formerly served as a senior policy adviser to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.


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