A steadily growing pipeline of cash for U.S. colleges and universities from international students was abruptly cut off with the pandemic. Now higher education institutions are looking to the White House to shore up a besieged visa process to bring those lucrative students back.
Students from abroad often pay the full sticker price on tuition and fees, making them desirable to admit. But when the pandemic closed borders, canceled flights and shuttered buildings, that cash flow halted. Education groups are looking at President Joe Biden to restore it.
American colleges and universities lost billions of dollars when the pandemic scattered their students and turned off new applicants. Now, their fall semesters are still uncertain as they don’t know yet how much international student enrollment they can get amid a Covid-rattled U.S. bureaucracy.
“When you add in other factors of community development, they’re innovators and creators, it could be quite a disaster long term if they can’t get in,” said Elizabeth Goss, a Boston-based immigration attorney who specializes in obtaining student visas.
Nearly 1.1 million students from abroad attended college in the U.S. in the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education, an organization that tracks their enrollment. While education groups say it’s too soon to predict what fall enrollment will look like, last fall’s 43 percent plunge in new international student enrollment has advocates for those students concerned about the coming semester.
A recent Moody’s analysis stated that last year’s decline in international students and the bureaucratic strain of Covid are likely to hurt university finances for “several years.” Enrollment will likely rebound for the fall, the credit rating agency said, but be slowed by travel restrictions, lingering sourness from the Trump administration’s immigration policies and increased competition from other countries.
Biden has eased Trump-era travel bans and will allow students on visas to study online if campuses close for Covid-19 outbreaks, but higher education advocates are urging him to loosen restrictions around student visas to ease the process of getting to the United States.
“Whether or not they waive the interviews, or perhaps set up virtual interviews, we have heard from State that there are security concerns with that and whether their system is set up to handle virtual interviews,” said Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations for the American Council on Education.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the world’s largest international education nonprofit, has also asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to prioritize student and scholar visa processing, extend temporary in-person visa interview waiver eligibility and use videoconferencing for required visa interviews.
To receive a student visa, prospective students must submit paperwork and participate in an in-person interview at an American consulate. Then, it takes a few months to process the visa.
“Workload increases drastically when staff goes down, even if international students and some visas are prioritized,” said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Joann Ng Hartmann, a senior director at NAFSA, said the organization anticipates there could be a huge backlog of visa processing requests when consulates open back up, which could mean international students wouldn’t be able to arrive on time in the fall.
And Covid-19 disruptions to banks and consulates, in hard-hit nations like India, could continue being significant barriers for prospective students.
Normally about 40,000 Indian students come as new enrollees to the United States each year, and they’re the students who would need to get visas from a consulate, said Allan Goodman, president of IIE.
“From online academic fairs and virtual presentations, there isn’t any indication at all that there’s any less enthusiasm for coming to American colleges and universities,” Goodman said. “The problem is, can people get here and how much of that is dependent on containing the virus, banks opening, consulates opening, vaccinations happening.”
In addition to the logistics of making an appointment, getting to a consulate and standing in line, Batalova said a student’s family member getting sick can unravel well-laid plans. And for those who still want to travel, the backlog of visas will likely include members of last year’s cohort who opted to study from home or defer for a year on top of the new enrollees for the fall.
“There is the potential that you could have double the number of people looking for first-time visas to enter the United States, which is logistically a problem,” said Goss, the Boston-based immigration attorney.
There are also people looking to renew visas because they decided to go home during the pandemic to check on their loved ones. But those who weathered Covid-19 in the U.S. are in a bind as well about how to renew visas if they want to visit family.
“A lot of students were wanting to go back [to India] to get extensions on their F-1 visas,” said Priyank Lathwal, a doctoral student from India studying at Carnegie Mellon University, where 18 percent of students are from overseas. “They’re unable to do so because there’s a lag in the system in terms of processing of visas and embassies are shut in India.”
College students and academics from China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, the Schengen Area of the European Union, the United Kingdom and Ireland have been added to the State Department’s list of national interest exceptions to the Covid-19 travel restrictions, which allows them to come to the United States despite travel restrictions .
Students in programs that begin on or after Aug. 1 will be able to enter the country — if they can get a visa on time.
Pratiyush Singh, at University of California at Berkeley, where 13 percent of students are from overseas, said he knows people from his high school in India who are unsure if they’ll get their visas on time for the fall because consulates are closed.
“It’s kind of confusing,” he said. “They do not know if they should defer their enrollment to spring if they don’t get the visa.”