Nanxi Liu held out hope until August of last year that she would be able to get to Wellesley College in Massachusetts to begin her studies. However, a ban imposed by the Trump administration on most travel from China during the pandemic made travelling to Boston impossible, and most visa processing suspended as U.S. embassies and consulates to be closed.
Ms Liu, who is 19 years old, chose to take her first year of classes online from her Shenyang home. She’s now hoping to get a visa interview to start the sophomore year with her classmates. “I might consider moving to another school so I can go there physically,” Ms Liu said if that is not the case. Her father is pressing for Japan, though she is considering Hong Kong. Wellesley said it has been in touch with its international students and finalises plans for the fall semester.
As international students from much of the world remain barred from entering the country, American colleges and universities are bracing for — and attempting to avoid — the second year of significant declines in international students. According to a survey by ten higher-education groups, new foreign student enrollment fell by 43% this school year; most of those who enrolled took classes online.
If new international students cannot attend school in the United States this fall, the schools will lose billions of dollars in tuition and fees, as most pay full freight and subsidise domestic students’ discounts. At specific colleges, international students account for 15% or more of the student body. To offset financial losses linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, the institutions have enacted widespread budget cuts and pay freezes. They have cautioned that if tuition revenue and state funding continue to decline, they will need to reduce expenditures more sharply.
Visas are now being processed at US embassies and consulates in India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other nations, with students and families receiving priority. Even so, the number of appointments for required in-person interviews is still limited. According to the State Department, 43 of the 233 consular posts were functioning at full capacity as of March 1.
Due to travel restrictions, students from China, which sends more students to the United States than any other nation, must apply for visas by case-by-case exceptions or at U.S. consulates in other countries.
“If they can get a student visa appointment in any other country, they will,” said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney who worked as a top immigration-policy official during the Obama administration. “However, there is nowhere near enough space at consulates abroad to accommodate the 100,000 or so Chinese students who would usually visit the United States. Students from Brazil, Iran, and South Africa are subject to similar travel restrictions. Students are excluded from most travel bans in Europe and the United Kingdom, though visa processing is highly restricted in those countries.
“When it comes to reopening our doors to international students this fall, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If there was, we’d be pushing the button as hard as we could “The American Council on Education, the industry’s leading lobbying organisation, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs.
Mr. Hartle said his organisation had pushed the State Department to reopen embassies and speed up visa processing. Still, one issue is that the Biden administration hasn’t yet wholly staffed the State Department or the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the student visa programme.
Mr Hartle said, “We are desperate to collaborate with the government to do this.” “However, we need people with whom we can interact.”
Requests for comment from the Departments of State and Homeland Security were not returned.
If embassies reopen, Holly Singh, executive director of Arizona State University’s International Students and Scholars Center, believes the school will have a record year for international enrollment.
However, he noted possible roadblocks such as a lack of vaccination opportunities in much of Africa and India and Chinese parents’ worries about allowing their children to travel to a country where the coronavirus is still spreading.
This past fall, Arizona State enrolled approximately 9,000 international students, a 7.8% drop from the previous year. The school’s broad online activity somewhat mitigated the effect, enabling many students to continue taking home classes.
To have authorisation in hand for the start of school in August, students typically start applying for visas in the spring. University leaders warn that if embassies and consulates do not increase their capacity to process applications soon, another year will waste due to the backlog.
“You don’t have space to heal if students don’t realise they’ll be able to come in the fall by March or April, if they don’t have the clearance by then,” Katherine Newman, chancellor for academic programmes at the University of Massachusetts system, said.
Juan González, dean of graduate education at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he is paying particular attention to students from Iran, who must pass via a third country, and those from Pakistan, where appointments are available Karachi but not everywhere.
“We’re trying to be as proactive as we can,” said Dr González. Last year, foreign enrollment at UT Dallas fell by 25% to about 4,100 students. “We’re all betting that vaccination rates will rise, Covid cases will decline, and travel will become more available,” ” he continued. UT Dallas is also sending documents confirming students have been accepted to the school via express mail, which is a necessary part of the visa application. The forms are sent out as soon as students approve their offers.
Tens of thousands of students deferred their enrollment last fall, hoping they would be able to make it to campus this spring or for next school year. As closures drag on, that still isn’t a sure thing.
This school year, international students who were not already in the country were permitted to enrol in fully online courses, despite the fact that they did not meet the criteria for a student visa. It has not yet been announced if those allowances will be extended for the following school year.
Last fall, Yuanfeng Song took a gap year instead of beginning Vanderbilt University classes remotely from his home in Beijing. He now sees a route to the Nashville campus via Singapore, where he will quarantine, have a visa interview, and then travel to the United States.
“It would be very terrifying if I’m going to have my freshman year online. I think that’s going to be a disaster,” said Mr Song, 18. He said he would likely look for an exchange program to begin his studies in person if he can’t get to Vanderbilt.
The school said it monitors communications for updates on the visa-application process and the phased reopening of consulates and embassies, and will begin accepting requests for those required forms next week.
Mr. Song is waiting for Vanderbilt to send his updated proof of admission before booking travel to Singapore. “The sooner the better,” he said.