The backlash continues against a rule modification by the Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that mandates in-person attendance by international F-1 visa holders in universities and colleges this fall. According to reports Monday (July 13), 17 states and the District of Columbia are suing to block the rule change that would revoke foreign students’ visas if they are in the country taking all-virtual classes — even though schools increasingly see online instruction as necessary to prevent health crises on campus amid the ongoing, and perhaps worsening, coronavirus pandemic.
Business schools and their universities have already registered their displeasure, in the court of public opinion as well as actual court: Two days after the rule modification, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court in Massachusetts seeking an injunction. Arguments in that case are set to be heard Tuesday (July 14). But rejection of the government’s move has been universal in higher education, because while many schools plan a hybrid approach of virtual and in-person instruction this fall, most would prefer to have the option to go all-virtual in the event of a spike in coronavirus cases — a move that now, under current federal rules, could jeopardize their international student populations.
At most of the top schools’ MBA programs, that is close to half the total enrollment. At smaller schools, the numbers are sometime even higher.
“It was unwelcome, a transparent attack on foreign participation in higher education in the U.S. and a political move against universities, which I think is a continuation of prior moves,” Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business Dean Peter Rodriguez tells Poets&Quants, noting that his school, like many others, plans a hybrid approach this fall. “We think that our hybrid approach will work with minimal impact as a result of this ruling, but it’s already impacted students. They feel less welcome. More are requesting deferrals. I think some were weeks away from getting started and they now think, ‘I can’t risk this. Let me defer for a year if possible.’ That’s a rational concern that they have.”
TRUMP ADMINISTRATION APPEARS UNMOVED BY OUTCRY
According to reports, the new lawsuit, which accuses the Trump administration of violating the Administrative Procedure Act, will be heard in the same district court as Harvard and MIT’s suit. The latter lawsuit contends that the administration’s rule change throws months of planning by colleges and universities into chaos and could force foreign students to travel to their home countries amid a pandemic, endangering their health and possibly their lives. About 40 higher education institutions filed declarations in support of the lawsuit, including Yale, the University of Chicago, and state universities in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The suit joins a separate suit by California filed last week.
“The area represented by the 17 states and the District of Columbia contains 1,124 colleges and universities that had a combined 373,000 international students enrolled in 2019, who contributed an estimated $14 billion to the economy that year,” The New York Times reports. In addition to Massachusetts and D.C., Monday’s lawsuit was brought by Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Last week, the administration appeared unmoved by the outcry their rule change had sparked. “You don’t get a visa for taking online classes from, let’s say, the University of Phoenix,” Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. “So why would you if you were just taking online classes, generally?”
She added, “Perhaps the better lawsuit would be coming from students who have to pay full tuition with no access to in-person classes to attend.”
B-SCHOOLS VOICE THEIR EXASPERATION
B-schools had breathed a sigh of relief when Trump, issuing a long-awaited (and -dreaded) executive order in June, left intact the Optional Practical Training program through which graduates of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs qualify for up to 36 months of work in the U.S. without needing a new visa. That’s because over the last three years — and especially since 2019 — B-schools have widely invested in designating all or part of their MBA programs as STEM, largely to attract international applicants who hope to work in the U.S. tech industry post-graduation. That effort has been a major element in B-schools’ strategy to offset the 13.7% decline in international applications between 2018 and 2019, as documented by the Graduate Management Admission Council, and a general decline in overall applications.
However, with the same stroke of his pen, Trump suspended the H-1B visa, the main goal of those in the OPT program. A few weeks later, after his administration modified its rules to require in-person attendance despite a raging pandemic, school leaders aired their exasperation.
“We all face the possibility of moving completely online because safety will require that,” says Rodriguez, whose school is located in Houston, Texas, currently a coronavirus hotspot. “In that case, we’re forced to make this unnecessary trade-off when we think about not just what’s safe for our students in a health sense, but what’s good for them and their ability to study. Many of our foreign students would have to move back 12 time zones. Pick the program, it just would be infeasible for them to do it without great sacrifice. That’s just too bad.
“With coronavirus, I am certainly more concerned than I was six weeks ago when we looked to be headed in the right direction. I think that what we’re seeing now painfully mirrors what we saw in New York and New Jersey, Louisiana, in late March, early April. And so I’m worried. We’re planning hybrid approaches. We’re trying to be as creative as possible, not having more than 25 students in a room, with ample distancing and face masks. I think we all know that things could change and that could not be enough, either. So I think unfortunately where most of the universities are preparing to ratchet up or ratchet down presence, it looks more like ratcheting down. We will ratchet up if, in the long term, things go back and they’re much, much better. But that seems further off, for sure.”
Jeff Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spoke to Yahoo Finance July 7 about his concerns leading a school that has among the country’s highest populations of international students across all its programs.
“I’m actually really concerned about what this is going to do to higher ed,” Brown said. “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.”