US F-1 Visa Reversal: What Does It Mean for International Students?

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After an eventful few weeks involving visa rules changes, lawsuits, and critical statements from US higher education leaders, the status of F-1 visa holders for fall 2020 is just about back where it started.

Now that the dust has settled, let’s break down where we are, how we got here, and what are some of the meaningful takeaways for international students currently enrolled at US business schools and international prospective students considering US MBA and business master’s programs.

Where things currently stand for F-1 visa students

An F-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa for students who wish to study in the United States. It allows you to enroll as a full-time student at an accredited university in a program that culminates in a degree, like an MBA or business master’s.

So what’s the status of F-1 student visas for fall 2020? If you hold an F-1 visa, you are permitted to stay in the United States for the fall 2020 semester, even if your course load is 100 percent online. This comes after an attempt by the Trump administration to impose new F-1 visa restrictions that would have prevented international students from staying in the country if their school held their fall 2020 courses online.

How did we get here? A brief timeline of events

On March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and as a result F-1 visa rules stating that non-US citizen students must take most of their classes in person were temporarily suspended. This allowed international students to stay in the country as universities navigated the shift to online classes in response to the pandemic. Since then, US schools have continued to sort out what their approaches to fall coursework will be, ranging it be in-person to online, to a combination of the two.

Then, on July 6, the Trump administration sent shockwaves through the US higher education system when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it would not issue F-1 visas to students enrolled in programs that are fully online for the fall 2020 semester.

Just two days later, before Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) filed a lawsuit against the federal government. Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said in a statement: “It appears that [the F-1 visa change] was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”

By July 13, more than 200 other universities had joined the suit, as well as organizations representing international students. In addition, more than a dozen tech companies—including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter—supported the suit on the basis that it would harm their businesses, citing that US universities are a vitally important source of international hiring for them. "America's future competitiveness depends on attracting and retaining talented international students," according to the brief. "Individuals who come here as international students are also essential to educating the next generation of inventors.”

In the face of this mounting pressure, on July 14 the Trump administration rescinded the policy change, allowing international students to remain in the country even if they are taking all of their classes online.

“This is a significant victory,” said Harvard President Bacow. “These students—our students—can now rest easier and focus on their education, which is all they ever wanted to do.”

Making sense of what it all means for international students and applicants

What should you consider if you are an international student or a prospective applicant considering US business schools make of this flurry of events? While of course the end result is a positive one, it’s certainly understandable if what transpired has left you feeling confused, frustrated, angry, or some combination of all three. Here are some takeaways from what happened:

The president doesn’t control the US higher education system. This latest skirmish is an illustrative example of the complex dynamic between the federal government and the US higher education system. Among some international students, there is a misconception that the federal government—and the president specifically—have wide, overreaching powers over the country’s universities. While the federal government controls some of the important levers of US higher education to international students, including visa policies, the collective voice of US universities and their substantial economic and political clout hold significant sway over matters impacting them, and international students should feel confident that US universities will lobby in their best interest.

US schools have your back. This month's events send a clear signal that US universities and business schools want you in their classrooms and will stand up for you.

In a moving email to MIT community, President L. Rafael Reif said: “Our international students now have many questions—about their visas, their health, their families and their ability to continue working toward an MIT degree. Unspoken, but unmistakable is one more question: Am I welcome? At MIT, the answer unequivocally, is yes.”

He also said: “This case also made clear that real lives are at stake in these ‘bureaucratic’ matters, with the potential for real harm. We need to approach policy making, especially now, with more humanity, more decency – not less.”

Prior to this visa battle, many US business school programs had already offered liberal deferral options amid the COVID-19 pandemic to admitted international candidates for the fall semester, another strong indicator that US schools are committed to their international students.

US schools are emboldened. US universities will be emboldened to take similar steps in the future if necessary, to protect their international students. In Harvard President Bacow’s statement following the reversal, he said: “While the government may attempt to issue a new directive, our legal arguments remain strong and the Court has retained jurisdiction, which would allow us to seek judicial relief immediately to protect our international students should the government again act unlawfully. This means we expect that the 2020–2021 academic year will proceed as we have carefully planned…”

There’s an election in November. Of course, the elephant in the room for prospective students in the current admissions cycle is that the results of November’s presidential election may be a key decision point for their application and enrollment plans. Current polling suggests a new, more international student-friendly administration may be inaugurated come next January…but a lot can happen between now and the election.

For recent updates and relevant discussion from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), read the latest on the GMAC advisor blog. For the latest updates from mba.com, create an account and opt into the GMASS™ search service to make it easy for the schools you’re interested in to find you. 

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