Colleges are facing another admissions cycle marked by uncertainty about international student enrollments.
It’s not just a matter of student interest; it’s also a matter of logistics. More than one year after the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, many U.S. embassies and consulates have not resumed regular visa processing.
In China, which sends more international students to the U.S. than any other, the U.S. Embassy and consulates are only scheduling emergency appointments. International educators have warned of an “imminent crisis” in Chinese enrollments as prospective students in China are almost wholly unable to obtain visa interview appointments, with the backlog growing by the day.
Pandemic-related travel bans remain in place for large swaths of the world — including the key sending countries of China and Brazil — meaning that unless something changes, students from those countries would have to transit through a third country and spend two weeks there before arriving in the U.S.
The American Council on Education has joined with about 40 other higher education organizations in appealing to the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security to prioritize processing student visa applications, as well as applications from international students for work authorization.
“If consulates are unable to re-open this spring in time to allow for the timely processing of visas, State should allow consular officers to waive the requirement for in-person interviews, or if a waiver is unavailable allow for online visa interviews,” the associations wrote in a March 18 letter.
The associations also called for an exemption from the pandemic-related travel bans for students — something that is already in place for students from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe’s Schengen Area — and for the Homeland Security Department to issue new guidance giving higher ed institutions flexibility to allow international students to enroll in online courses. The current guidance prohibits new international students from coming to the U.S. if their courses are entirely online.
Joann Ng Hartmann, a senior director at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, one of the signatories of the letter, said NAFSA officials have continued to remind the federal agencies that college administrators need guidance on visa and travel policies and updates about the agencies’ plans in order to effectively conduct their own planning for the fall term.
“The United States has seen international student enrollment numbers plummet, and it is essential for the administration to work with the higher education community as we look toward ending travel restrictions, reopening and again welcoming international students,” she said.
A recent report from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which manages the federal student visa program, showed that the number of new international students in the U.S. fell by 72 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. The total number of international students in the U.S. declined by 17.9 percent.
A spokesperson for ICE said no additional information about guidance on online learning for next fall is available beyond information posted on the agency’s website, which was last updated in August.
A State Department spokesperson said COVID-19-related safety protocols have slowed processing at many consular posts.
“U.S. Embassies and consulates are working to resume routine visa services on a location-by-location basis, in accordance with public health data and local conditions. We will only resume all services worldwide when it is safe and appropriate to do so,” the spokesperson said.
While regular services have not resumed worldwide, the spokesperson said consular posts that process nonimmigrant visa applications are prioritizing travelers with urgent needs, including students.
The State Department spokesperson acknowledged “that the U.S. Embassy and consulates in China are still operating at reduced capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions on foreign nationals who have been in China up to 14 days prior to their attempted entry into the United States. However, Chinese nationals have had F-1 [student] visas issued in countries outside of China, after they have demonstrated to a consular officer they have spent the last 14 days outside of a country subject to U.S. travel restrictions and meet the qualifications for the visa.”
David Weeks, co-founder and chief operating officer of Sunrise International, a company that helps colleges recruit students in China, said some students are traveling to Singapore — where they’re able to get appointments — in order to apply for visas.
He said those students then quarantine in a hotel in Singapore for 14 days, hope they get approved to travel to the U.S. and then go back to China to quarantine in a hotel for another two weeks.
“We’re going on a year now that there have been either no appointments [in China] or the appointments are fake promises,” Weeks said. “They’re not actually taking place; they’re getting canceled. So people are going to third countries by and large, but that takes a remarkable amount of determination” — and a significant sum of money.
Ron Cushing, director of international services at the University of Cincinnati, said it’s hard to advise students when there are so many uncertainties.
“A month or two ago, we were probably more hopeful that they would get here” this fall, he said. “As each passing week goes by and we don’t hear anything about embassies in China opening up and what that’s going to look like, we become less optimistic.
“All they tell us is operations are closed and we can’t tell you when they’ll reopen,” Cushing said. “Let us know what the plan is so we can plan accordingly.”
Sarah Spreitzer, director of government and public affairs at ACE, said even if all the consulates suddenly reopened, “They’re going to see a huge influx in folks applying for visas across the board. We want to make sure they know students are on a specific timeline. It’s not like applying for a tourist visa. They have a date their program of study is scheduled to start, and they need to get to the U.S.A. by that date. Is there a way to prioritize student processing because they have that timeline?”
Despite the barriers, Xiaofeng Wan, associate dean of admission and coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said the students he speaks with “are anxious but with hope, which is very different from the last four years.”
“I think the turning point was when Biden won the presidency, so that gave a lot of hope for families who are debating about whether or not they wanted to send their children to the U.S.,” Wan said. “People from outside of the country, now they’re seeing a completely different rhetoric from the Biden administration and a welcoming position for international talents from other parts of the world, and a very successful vaccine rollout. At the moment I think that’s a very positive mental shift from previous years — even though there are still significant challenges in travel, in visas due to COVID, as well as health concerns coming to the U.S.”