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New Trump rule on foreign students leaves Illinois universities scrambling: ‘It hurts us ... it hurts our students’

Even as many colleges plan to offer many online-only courses this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government says students could be deported if they don’t take in-person classes.

Students walk across the Quad on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill.
International students at schools across Illinois, including the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, could be forced to leave under a new policy by the Trump Administration.
Heather Coit /The News-Gazette via AP, File

A removal of an exemption that allowed international students to remain enrolled in colleges in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic has left universities across the state scrambling to find ways to protect the more than 50,000 international students who study in Illinois from either being denied visas to return to the U.S. or face deportation as soon as next month.

While the schools say they are concerned for the disruption to students’ education, universities could also see a huge loss in revenue: the country’s 1.1 million international students — a record last fall — frequently pay tuition rates that are far higher than what in-state or even American students from out-of-state pay.

Under the rule introduced Monday by the Trump Administration, students from foreign countries can no longer stay in the country if they are attending a school that is only offering online courses next semester. The federal government has also laid out strict limitations on online coursework for students at schools offering a mix of in-person and remote learning — a hybrid model many schools have adopted because of the pandemic.

In some cases, international students will be allowed to take no more than a single online class next semester — a requirement that could send thousands of students home if they can’t get enough in-person courses.

Administration officials have defended the new rules as more flexible than current law under the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which doesn’t allow international students to live in the U.S. while taking only online courses. But an exemption was put in place last spring after the pandemic forced many universities to close campuses and pivot to remote learning for the rest of the semester.

Schools: New rules will hurt

Schools say it’s unfair to lift that exemption with the pandemic showing no signs of waning in most states across the country. What’s more, they fear what will happen if another large COVID-19 outbreak forces universities that open back up to transition back to online-only classes during the fall — which could force foreign students to leave or transfer elsewhere.

In Illinois, the new rules could have a big impact.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — which has nearly 13,500 foreign students, the most of any public university in the country — said in a statement Tuesday it was “reviewing the new guidance and will be communicating with impacted students directly as soon as possible.”

Officials at U. of I.’s Chicago campus said they have worked intensely for three months to develop a hybrid of course offerings that prioritizes not only student education but also health during the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the new rule, officials now have only a few weeks to figure out if their more than 4,000 international students — most of whom have already registered for classes and arranged for housing for next year — will be compliant.

“There are so many barriers being put up, and from our perspective, it makes no sense,” said Neal McCrillis, UIC’s Vice Provost for Global Affairs. “It hurts us, our institution, and it hurts our students.”

Public policy student S. Isaac Work, while not an international student himself, worked with foreign students on a letter to the administration at UIC calling for the institution to take a hard stance against the policy.

“It is unnecessarily cruel, it’s unfair to international students and it puts the university in between a rock and a hard place because now these universities risk losing tuition dollars,” Work said Tuesday. “ ... Not only is this administration exploiting this crisis to initiate removal of foreign students, they are doing it in a way that is so ambiguous that it’s causing chaos in our schools.”

DePaul University also developed a mix of in-person and online courses for students this fall. The new requirements are “unnecessarily punitive and put our international students at a major disadvantage,” said Carol Hughes, a school spokeswoman. “We share the frustration of our international students and let them know that we are in the process of getting further clarification.”

Student ‘scared and shocked’

A student from China who attends Northwestern University said she was angry and shocked when she heard the news. She’s lived in Illinois since 2015 and was hoping to set roots here in Chicago.

Many of her classes in her masters program in fine arts are both online and in-person, so she is still not sure how it impacts her.

“When we first heard about the news on social media, we were all scared and shocked because it is almost impossible for us to go back to China right now,” said the student, who asked not to be named out of fear she could face repercussions. “The Chinese embassy is closed and we can’t even afford a plane ticket because of how expensive it is right now.”

Kathleen Hagerty, NU’s interim provost, sent a letter to the campus community ensuring the university would do whatever it can to make sure international students are eligible to stay in the country.

“Since there will be a number of in-person classes, we are hopeful most international students will remain eligible to study on our campus this academic year, and we will be taking steps to help ensure that our international students are in compliance with the new policy,” Hagerty said.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.