There's a lot Andy Tu was looking forward to as a freshman at Claremont McKenna College, a small private college in California. He imagined having intellectual debates on the quad and meeting "highly motivated, open-minded friends." Coming from an environment that's "intolerant of unconventional ideas," he says he was looking forward to being able to express himself freely on campus. He'd even been daydreaming about learning how to surf.
But every morning he wakes up at home in Shanghai, he feels like that iconic American freshman year is slipping further and further away.
"This uncertainty is making me anxious," he says, "I'm really concerned."
Due to the pandemic, many international students who are starting a graduate program or their freshman year, like Tu, face a series of hurdles — travel restrictions, limited flights and closed U.S. consulate offices — that make it incredibly difficult to start the fall semester at U.S. colleges. That's despite a reprieve last week, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to allow international students to stay in the country even if their schools opted for online-only learning in the fall.
The biggest hurdle for students like Tu is acquiring a student visa. U.S. consulate offices, where students go for an in-person interview, are closed — it's unclear when they'll reopen. Tu has heard that he may not be able to get a visa until October in Shanghai. Even if he can get a visa, travel restrictions will make it difficult for him to make his way to the U.S. The State Department has currently barred travelers coming directly from China. "The travel restrictions mean I would need at least a month," he explains, "I would quarantine in Japan for two weeks and then the U.S. for two weeks."
Still, he's holding out hope, keeping an eye on flights, even though he knows he's probably searching in vain. "There is not much of a chance I can get on campus by late August or September," Tu says.
Students come to the U.S. from all over the world, but China and India send the most. In 2019, there were more than 350,000 Chinese international students in U.S. colleges and universities. And because they often pay full-tuition, that translates to big money for schools: international students studying in the U.S. contributed $41 billion during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to an economic analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Colleges are bracing for the possibility that their students won't make it to campus. One recent analysis estimates enrollment for new international students is projected to decline 63% to 98% from last year. In the worst case scenario, that means the U.S. would admit the lowest level of new international students since just after World War II, when the U.S. first started tracking these numbers. The Trump administration said last week that students coming from Europe are exempt from the current travel ban to the U.S., but it's unclear the impact that will have on enrollment, given that no European country is represented on the top 10 list of origin countries for international students.
Florida International University, a public school in Miami which enrolls thousands of students from more than 140 countries, is getting creative with their virtual offerings for international students.. "We're working with many of those students to keep them engaged," says Dr. Pablo G. Ortiz, FIU's vice president for regional and world locations. The school is hoping to keep those students interested and connected enough to the institution through the fall, that they'll still pursue an "in-person experience in the spring semester."
Still, he expects a significant drop in enrollment come fall, especially for FIU's graduate programs. "Optimistically, I'd love to say that with our menu of offerings and our online programing, that we can sustain our numbers, but we do expect it to take a hit," he says.
With weeks left before the first day of school, there are few options for international students trying to enter the U.S. They could stay enrolled in their U.S. colleges and take classes remotely. Andy Tu is worried that time zone challenges will make that impossible; he can't imagine being awake for a seminar at 2 a.m, potentially keeping his family up too. He says that all the activities planned outside of class, like orientation or networking events would also be a challenges — it's hard to make friends over video chat. A second option is to take the year off and try again next year (what some call a gap year) but in many cases that means students must start the visa application process all over again. Tu has also considered enrolling in a local program at a university in China. He says he wants the support of his U.S. institution, before he pays for any classes. He's proposed a partnership to Claremont — with hopes of staying enrolled there, while taking classes and using resources like the library, locally.
Ultimately it may be the case that an in-person fall is a fallacy for all students, not just an impossible feat for those living abroad. More and more colleges have scaled back or reversed their decision to hold in-person classes. Claremont McKenna College, where Andy Tu was set to enroll, is weighing that transition now, according to the college. So in the end, there may be no new surfing skills or robust debates on the campus green for anyone.