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If Colleges Don’t Open This Fall, They’ll Lose Their International Student Cash Cow


If universities thought they could get away with keeping campuses closed this fall, only offering classes online while still extracting tens of thousands from parents and students, these schools just received a rude awakening. New guidance for international students issued by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement will likely leave universities with no choice but to reopen.

Last spring, during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, colleges and universities sent students home and turned all in-person classes into online classes. Since the need for room and board disappeared, some schools refunded a portion of these expenses paid by students.

Yet many schools, including Harvard and Tufts, continued to charge students full tuition even though students didn’t receive anywhere near the typical, complete learning experiences (for the 2018 -2019 school year, tuition at Tufts was $56,382). For the upcoming fall semester, some universities, such as the University of Denver, have announced they will offer a hybrid model of online classes and small face-to-face classes, while others, like Harvard, said they would offer only online classes.

The new ICE guideline stipulates that international students who are outside the United States won’t be permitted to enter the country if the schools they plan to attend offer only online classes. International students who are already stateside will either have to transfer to another school that offers some in-person classes or leave the country. The guideline also requires that for schools that offer a hybrid model, an international student must be physically on campus and can’t take only online classes.

Schools will have to choose between reopening and holding in-person classes or staying online while losing lucrative international students. Many universities insist reopening their campuses and offering in-person classes is too risky given the ongoing pandemic.

Data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, show that Americans who are 24 or younger have experienced much milder COVID-19 symptoms with fewer deaths when compared to older Americans. For example, on June 20, 2020, the CDC reported two COVID-19 related deaths of Americans younger than 24 and 512 deaths of Americans who were 85 and older.

On the other hand, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a steady increase in depression, anxiety, and suicidality among U.S. college students was observed. Scientists say for young people, socialization and bonding are not a luxury but are critical for biological development. According to Gregory Lewis, a neurobiologist at Indiana University, “young brains need social connection to feel secure about their identity and place in the world.” Even for the generation growing up with all things digital, no amount of Zoom can replace face-to-face interactions.

Mental health experts believe that campus closing and pandemic-mandated social isolation have severe negative impacts on the “sense of belonging” sought by college students. Sarah K. Lipson, Assistant Professor at Boston University School of Public Health said: “In addition to depression and loneliness, college students will also likely face increased rates of anxiety, fueled by the uncertainties surrounding the virus.”

Her statement is supported by the latest CDC data, which shows that more than 40 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, almost twice the rate as Americans who are 60 and older. For American youth, continued social isolation poses a much greater risk to their health than COVID-19 does.

The continued closure of college campuses not only has long-term mental health effects on students but has also depressed college town economies. Colleges and universities are often one of the largest employers in town and the engine keeping the local economy going. Their presence means local businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, can count on servicing hundreds and thousands of students and visitors on an annual basis.

Last spring’s COVID-19 related shutdown has already turned many college towns into ghost towns, sending shockwaves through these local economies. Many communities are counting on a fall reopening of campus to bring some life back to their economies. A prolonged shutdown of college campuses, however, may ruin these areas for decades.

While the majority of students, parents, and local communities want schools to reopen this fall, many administrators and faculty still insist that schools must be kept closed for health concerns. Indeed, when Philip DiStefano, chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, announced that he intended to bring students back on August 24, more than 170 faculty wrote him an open letter, stating: “any plan for face-to-face classes in Fall 2020 puts our health and safety at risk.”

The Trump administration has been pushing all schools to reopen this fall, with the president even threatening to cut federal funding for colleges and universities if they don’t resume full classes as usual. Ken Cuccinelli, a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged that the new ICE guideline on international students was designed in part to “encourage schools to reopen” because, if nothing else, money talks.

Truly, having international students on campuses is a lucrative business for many American colleges and universities. International students make up to 15 percent to 20 percent of enrollment and many international students pay full tuition. During the 2018-2019 academic year, around 1.1 million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities spent close to $45 billion on tuition, fees, books, and other costs. It’s fair to say that international students have kept many universities afloat financially.

As more American students and families are reevaluating the value of higher education and asking why they should pile on student debt, revenues from international students will be even more crucial for the financial health of many American schools this fall. Giving parents further pause is the knowledge that today’s colleges and universities focus more on indoctrinating students with left-wing illiberal ideology than educating, while at least 45 percent of undergraduates progress through higher education “without measurable gains in general skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.”

As a result, colleges and universities throughout America expect to see domestic student enrollment go down this fall. Public universities that rely on state funding will feel an additional financial crunch since the state tax revenues will decrease and expenses increase as the result of the pandemic shutdown and slow reopening.

Given all these factors, colleges and universities need more international students to fill their financial shortfalls or even stay solvent, not less. The ICE international students guideline takes that financial lifeline away unless schools reopen and offer some kind of in-person classes.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said recently: “It’s clear that our nation’s schools must fully reopen and fully operate this school year. Anything short of that robs students, not to mention taxpayers, of their future.” Clearly, the future of many schools are on the line too. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued the Trump administration over the new ICE international students guideline.

Yet, as most colleges and universities do not have Harvard’s deep endowment of around $40 billion to keep themselves afloat, schools will have to decide fast. If they want to continue to attract international students to remain financially sound, there is only one thing to do — reopen this fall.