“It never stops,” says Peter Johnson with a hint of exasperation. The assistant dean for the full-time MBA program and admissions at UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business is talking with Poets&Quants about the latest hurdle thrown in the path of international students seeking higher education in the United States. On Monday (July 6), the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced a modification to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) that declares that foreign students on F-1 visas cannot stay in the U.S. unless they take some in-person classes. That means that even as coronavirus cases spike across the country — and even if the pandemic worsens, as many expect it to do — MBA programs considering an all-virtual fall 2020 semester risk having their international students ousted from the country.
Many universities and their business schools across the U.S. have adopted hybrid approaches for the fall, a mix of in-person and virtual instruction that would, per the currently written rules, immunize them and their students from federal punishment. But some schools were planning to be fully online in the fall, and others are facing pressure from their faculty to consider it. However, the new rule — which is actually a rollback of an exemption granted in the spring because of the pandemic — mandates that the U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to international students who are enrolled in schools that are fully online for fall 2020, and students currently in the country will be required to leave the U.S. or transfer to another school if their current program lacks in-person instruction.
This is the latest development in a three-year saga of increasing challenges for international MBA students in the U.S. — a saga rife with xenophobic rhetoric, compounded by an unprecedented pandemic and relentless presidential politics, and destined for judicial intervention. So when the Haas School’s Pete Johnson says “It never stops,” he’s expressing exasperation on behalf of his school’s, and all schools’, foreign students, for whom the challenges and threats really do never seem to stop.
HARVARD, MIT HEAD TO COURT
Through a lawsuit filed Wednesday (July 8), Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are seeking to block the ICE directive mandating in-person classes for foreign students in the country, saying the policy is politically motivated and designed to cause chaos in higher education. Harvard University is planning to teach its classes entirely online, though Harvard Business School has announced its intention to pursue a hybrid approach.
In filing the lawsuit, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said the Trump administration’s move seems designed to pressure schools to open earlier than they want to “without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors and others.” (See Bacow’s full statement on the SEVP rule change on page 2.) Harvard University has approximately 5,000 international students. According to the suit, “The ability to provide remote education during the pandemic is of paramount importance to universities across the country. COVID-19 is a highly contagious disease that spreads from human to human in close contact situations. Medical evidence and official governmental guidance indicate that indoor gatherings of any size are of particular concern. Densely populated classrooms that are attendant with on-campus instruction have the potential to turn into ‘super-spreader’ situations that endanger the health of not only the university community but also those in the surrounding areas and anyone else with whom community members may come into contact.”
The lawsuit contends that the original rule change by ICE, on March 13, was intended to last through the duration of the emergency and that the emergency is far from over.
“By all appearances,” the lawsuit contends, “ICE’s decision reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes, which would require housing students in densely packed residential halls, notwithstanding the universities’ judgment that it is neither safe nor educationally advisable to do so and to force such a reopening when neither the students nor the universities have sufficient time to react to or address the additional risks to the health and safety of their communities. The effect — and perhaps even the goal — is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible.”
A LOT OF CHALLENGES THIS YEAR — ‘AND NOW RULE CHANGES’
“I’m sorry that international students, as well as our U.S. students, are having to contend with a lot of uncertainty this year,” says Johnson, whose school plans a hybrid approach in the fall. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we make it possible for our students to complete the programs that they wanted to. That’s why they’re here, and that’s why they’re interested in leading MBA programs in the U.S. And I think you’ll find that most of our colleagues at other schools are thinking about this in a similar way. We’re just all navigating a lot of challenges this year ranging from travel restrictions to visas, to scheduling, to public health requirements. And now rule changes.
“We’ve been working on building a hybrid model for the last two months, working with faculty, with facilities, with our campus instructional committee, which is also working with the local public health authorities, to build a hybrid model that both ensures the safety of students, faculty, and staff, but also enables us to maintain an in-person component, which we feel is a critical part of the MBA. And so the modified regulations announced by ICE are just another piece of that process. Now we’re in communication with our international office to ensure that what we’re planning actually will meet the requirements of ICE for a hybrid program — so that it doesn’t in any way endanger the opportunities of our current students.”
Johnson emphasizes that ICE’s move is an effort to provide clarity for the coming semester. “As you know, historically for students who were in the U.S. on F-1 student visas, there was a limitation of how many online units they could take and still remain eligible for a student visa to be present in the U.S. And previously, that was one course. So a student who is otherwise full-time enrolled can take one online course and still be considered a full-time student. After the corona pandemic kicked off and most universities in the country were forced to very quickly go remote, Homeland Security made a modification at that time to say that any students who were physically present in the U.S. and enrolled full-time in a program would still be in status if they were pursuing a full-time program that was forced to go remote.
“But that decision, according to Homeland Security, was only through the end of summer. So they needed to notify schools and students of how they were going to modify that regulation going forward. So I don’t think this is a new attempt to do anything. I think it was just an attempt to clarify what they believe is appropriate for the coming academic year.
“I don’t know what will happen, but I heard that there are education groups that are already planning a legal challenge against this latest modification. I think a lot of things are possible at this time,” Johnson says.
EDUCATION: A BIGGER U.S. EXPORT THAN SOYBEANS
According to the modified text of the SEVP policy on nonimmigrant students taking online courses during the fall 2020 semester, “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.”
ICE defines F-1 students as those who pursue academic coursework, and M-1 students as those who pursue “vocational coursework.” Combined, they contributed an estimated $41 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019, according to Yahoo Finance. They also are the lifeblood of U.S. MBA programs. Of course, it’s not only the international students in MBA programs that are threatened by the rule modification. According to Statista, the more than 375,000 international graduate students in the U.S. in 2018-2019 represented one third of all grad students in the country. The numbers had been climbing every year until 2016-2017.
The top MBA programs won’t be most impacted by a loss of international students; that will be the programs that live on the margins and truly can’t afford the financial hit that a loss of international enrollment entails. At the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, of the 8,000 students evenly split between online and in-person across all undergraduate and graduate programs, 1,200 are international. In the school’s iMBA program, called by P&Q “the fastest-growing MBA on the planet,” the nearly 3,000 students hail from 92 countries and six continents. The University of Illinois as a whole “has always had a large number of international students, especially from Asia — it’s something we are proud of,” says Jeff Brown, Gies College dean. “I think we have more international students than any other university in the United States, or at least we are right up there with UCLA.”
Brown spoke to Yahoo Finance on July 7. Of the rule modification by ICE, he says, “there was a little bit of a panic when this announcement first came out,” but after reading the fine print, “in our case at the University of Illinois, most of our students are going to be OK because we are moving into a hybrid model in the fall — so we are bringing students back to campus.” Nonetheless, he adds, the restriction on course delivery could affect a number of individual students “because we do have to certify that each individual student is not taking more than the minimum number of online classes necessary to stay on track for the degree.”
Other, bigger schools and school systems are not in as good a position, Brown says.
“When you look at very large university systems like Cal State, which had already announced that they were going to be online — if there are international students in the Cal State system and they are supposed to be entirely online, they are going to be asked to leave the country,” he says. “It seems very counterproductive and frankly a little bit callous toward those students that are already here in the middle of their degree program.
“I’m actually really concerned about what this is going to do to higher ed. If you look back over the last 100 years, one of the reasons that the United States rose to economic dominance in the world is because we have the world’s best university system and we train not only our own citizens, but we train people all around the world. It is one of the biggest exports that we have, too. We exported $35 billion worth of education, a net trade surplus, as of 2017, which are the last numbers I’ve seen, and so this is kind of a funny way to go about trade policy: ‘Let’s try to do damage to one of our best export industries.’
“We export education more than we do soybeans, almost as much as we do automobiles. This is gonna have repercussions — not just for universities, who are gonna be hurt financially; not just for the international students, who find themselves in these straits. But honestly, having a global perspective on campus is important to the American students that we are training. So I think it does real damage.”