White House Scales Back Rules on Foreign Students Studying Online

Mary Dooe
Mar 17, 2021

The Trump Administration has now rescinded a rule that would have put thousands of international students at risk of remaining in the United States for their course of study amid Covid-19 restrictions.  

The plan

Last week, the White House announced that it would draw back its ruling that international students would need to leave the country if their higher education institution put online-only class plans in place in the coming academic year - with the argument being that such international students could take their classes online in their home country.   Many schools across the country had started announcing plans to take classes completely online in the 2020-2021 school year, with growing concerns about the ability to control the coronavirus epidemic in dining halls, dorm rooms, and social spaces on physical campuses.  

The backlash

After announcing the restrictions on foreign students in early July, academic institutions as well as states immediately took action. Some planned on university-level policies like creating classes on campus for international students so that they could stay in the U.S. during the school year.   Other schools took legal action, beginning with a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The public colleges in California quickly followed, and eventually a suit by 20 states was also brought. The lawsuits were brought forward with the notion that the rules were violating federal laws known as the Administrative Procedure Act.   Many international students claimed that being forced to return to their country of origin could be dangerous. Beyond the direct political pressure they might be returning to, many students would be forced to move back to places where they no longer had a home. The ability to attend online classes was also put into question, if young people were returning to places with restricted internet access.   Universities stood to lose not only tuition money, but also the incredible diversity of background, ideas, and skillsets that foreign students bring to their schools. Around 1 million foreign students every year are enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.   Silicon Valley, the heart of the tech industry, also spoke out publicly against the rule, knowing that removing international students from the country would have huge impacts on their hiring plans in the coming years.   That put mounting pressure on the Trump Administration and U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) to reconsider the stance.  

The rollback

On July 14th, the Trump Administration reversed course on their previous directive put out on July 6th, marking a swift and unusual change of direction by the White House.   Harvard's president Lawrence Bacow called the reversal "a significant victory" while MIT president L. Rafael Reif stated "These students make us stronger, and we hurt ourselves when we alienate them.”  

The approaching fall semester

Students, universities, and state leaders are applauding the reversal as many universities plan for students to return to campus in some capacity this August and September. The fate of some international students is still unknown, with students arriving from China likely still to face challenges because of existing travel restrictions. Around a third of all international students currently studying in the U.S. come from China.   And higher education in the U.S. is still grappling with the best mix of in-person and online education to keep students safe this fall while continuing to deliver on their educational promises to young people in this country.