U.S. To Foreign MBA Students: Take In-Person Classes Or Get Out

A new federal rule change mandates that international student F-1 visa holders at U.S. universities — including business schools — must attend some in-person classes this fall, or risk deportation. Virginia Darden photo

Business schools lamented President Trump’s executive order last month that suspended the H-1B visa program through the end of 2020, while also breathing a sigh of relief that the Optional Practical Training program — through which international MBAs may qualify for up to three years’ work stay in the United States — was left intact. Now comes more bad news for graduate business education in the U.S., as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on Monday (July 6) announced a modification to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) that may mean foreign students on F-1 visas cannot stay in the U.S. unless they take some in-person classes.

In other words, programs considering going all-virtual this fall risk having their international students booted from the country.

Even as spiking cases of coronavirus have cast doubt — at big and smaller schools alike — on plans for hybrid online-and-in-person approaches to the fall 2020 semester, the SEVP rule change could blow a hole in schools’ strategy to weather the pandemic’s impact while still seeking full tuition payments from MBA admits. According to the text of the rule change, “Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not (emphasis in the original) take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester, nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction, to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.”

“Under the rule ICE announced today, schools like Harvard wouldn’t lose tuition from students forced to leave the United States,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, posted on Twitter in response to ICE’s announcement. “Students could ‘attend’ classes virtually — in their home country. But if the choice is stay at Harvard or leave the U.S. … many will choose to transfer.”


Yale SOM Deputy Dean Anjani Jain. Yale photo

The move is likely to force any B-schools on the fence about having in-person instruction (to whatever degree) to choose to do so. But will students in programs adopting a hybrid approach be entirely safe from deportation? According to ICE:

“Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools 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. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, ‘Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,’ certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”

Anjani Jain, deputy dean for academic programs at Yale School of Management, tells Poets&Quants that as long as MBA programs maintain an actual hybrid approach, their international students should not have to worry about their F-1 status.

“Though the language of the ICE news release is not entirely clear, it does have a provision for schools that will operate in a ‘hybrid’ model (Yale SOM, for instance),” says Jain, who is also a professor of the practice of management.

“International students at such programs should be eligible for F-1 visas and the online component of their education will be exempt from the usual limit of three credit hours per semester. We are awaiting more detailed guidance from our Office of International Students and Scholars.”

How much do Yale and other top U.S. B-schools rely on international MBA students? According to our coverage, a great deal.


Speculating on the reason for the changes, Paul Bodine, CEO of admissions consultancy Admitify.com, says the government’s real motive may be expulsion of more noncitizens.

“What stands out to me is the restrictiveness — a ‘maximum of 1 class or 3 credit hours’ — and the lack of an explanation,” Bodine tells P&Q in an email. “Why is online learning ‘bad’ and in-person learning ‘good’? What about someone learning online concerns them? If in-person classes earned schools more revenue I could see at least a (weak) economic justification, but the only explanation I can think of is: ICE knows that schools will have to switch to online teaching because the administration has so bungled the Covid response, so they are using this fact as a pretext to get rid of more ‘furriners’.”

Beyond politics, there are obvious problems in making international students take online classes from their home countries. Many come from countries where Internet connections are not reliable, and time zone changes — particularly for the international population that is most schools’ largest, Indians — can be a major challenge. Another problem, as Reichlin-Melnick points out, is that many of the resources that professors rely on for online-only curricula are not available in every country. “Some students,” for example, “could be locked out of tech.”

“Another major problem,” Reichlin-Melnick tweeted, “is that many countries have blocked travel from the United States right now — because we’re a Covid hotspot. It’s unclear how many countries applies those rules to their own citizens, but some definitely do. What are those students suppose to do?”

He adds, however, that no one should book their flight home — yet.

“This is almost certainly going to be challenged in court,” he tweeted, declining to offer specific legal advice but adding, “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to book a flight ‘home’ this exact moment. Lawsuits are inevitable.”


In a statement issued late Monday, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said the university was “deeply concerned” that the rule change “imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem.” Harvard and other schools will huddle and together “chart a path forward.”

“In recent weeks, like many of our colleague institutions across the country, Harvard has announced plans for the fall semester,” Bacow said. “Our schools have taken into account the most up-to-date public health and safety guidance, the specific educational requirements of their programs, and their unique student populations. The well-being of the University community has been our highest priority in making these difficult decisions.

“We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students, particularly those in online programs, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools. This guidance undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programs while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic.

“We will work closely with other colleges and universities around the country to chart a path forward. We must do all that we can to ensure that our students can continue their studies without fear of being forced to leave the country mid-way through the year, disrupting their academic progress and undermining the commitments — and sacrifices — that many of them have made to advance their education.”

Poets&Quants will follow this story as schools react to the new rule change. See the announcement by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency here.


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