One particular problem with the ICE international student ruling

On July 6th the American Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) ruled that international students would not be allowed in the United States if their classes were entirely online.

There are all kinds of problems with this, as I and others have been discussing here, on Twitter, and elsewhere. In this post I’d like to explore one particular problem.

What happens when international students start classes in person, but at some point their college or university switches to entirely online education?

I’m thinking of the Toggle Term idea. This is a scenario wherein a campus offers entirely or mostly an in-person, face to face educational experience, then decides to switch to online-only because of some COVID-19 development, such as a campus outbreak or massive infection wave in the immediate community.

How would a Toggle Term impact international students, if the ICE ruling stands?

To establish some parameters, we can assume about 1 million international students in American higher ed this fall. IIE estimated 1,095,299 last fall. Let’s assume some attrition from March and a bit more from anxieties over this upcoming term.

How many campuses might throw the Toggle? According to the Chronicle of Higher Ed this morning, 85% of American colleges and universities are planning on offering either an in-person or blended experience.

For the sake of discussion, let’s posit enough campuses enter Toggle Term to impact 100,000 students.

We can start with the personal and practical impacts. These students would have to leave the country right away. This means they have to break whatever housing arrangement they have, such as campus residence halls or apartment/rental houses. They will have to arrange international travel.

The obstacles are evident. How many won’t be able to scrape up the cash for this? How many nations won’t accept students back, fearing — rightly — infection from America. Perhaps they are coping with their own outbreak, or for other, possibly horrible, political reasons? How many of the 100,000 would thus enter a homeless limbo?

The costs are also apparent, starting with the psychological and financial pressures on these students, which can be enormous. I wonder how many will use technology to draw attention to their plight, and how many will run silently, fearing malign attention from trolls or police.

Continuing classwork will be a challenge in ways familiar to those of us who lived and worked through March 2020. Setting up synchronous video sessions will be difficult when leading numbers of those 100,000 students are rebased in central or East Asia. It will also be difficult for those lacking bandwidth and/or dealing with local network restrictions. The problems of doing hands-on work remotely (dissections, culinary arts, diesel engines, sculpture) will return.

Back in the US, campuses will lose some of them as enrolled students — remember that many international students pay full tuition and fees. Campuses will also lose some as workers, teaching assistants, and research assistants. The local economy, both campus and otherwise, will miss their spending on food, clothing, rental, etc. Campus emergency planners and operational leadership will have to track and address this complex, multinational problem.

Looking further ahead to 2021, much depends on if these colleges and universities throw the Toggle back to in-person/hybrid education. If they do, then it’s going to be difficult for these 100,000 to make their way back to America, to arrange for housing, and to regain their work positions. Some may want to avoid that problem and so remain home to continue classes online. Some may instead decide to skip that semester or year, or to leave the institution completely.

What if the Toggle remains thrown in the “entirely online” position? All of the aforementioned online learning problems continue, as do the local economic hits. How many truly remote students will continue study, or will we see another enrollment dip?

I wonder which other countries and their universities would market themselves in opposition to an American Toggle. Those with low and controlled COVID infection rates can credibly present themselves as safer, more reliable alternatives to the United States.

My heart goes out to these students now, some of whom I know.

(Toggle photo from Alan Levine; thanks to disaster planner Gwynneth for conversation; cross-posted to my blog)

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.