Colleges Face Challenge of Bringing Home Study-Abroad Students

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U.S. colleges and universities are sorting out how to bring students back from study abroad and maintain the eligibility of international students on their campuses after new travel restrictions were announced in response to outbreaks of coronavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised travel warnings for European countries March 11 and the U.S. State Department advised Americans to avoid going abroad. President Donald Trump followed those warnings with an Oval Office announcement March 11 that travel from Europe would be restricted for at least the next 30 days. The administration later clarified that U.S. citizens and green-card holders would be exempted. Travel restrictions were expanded to cover Ireland and the U.K.

Europe is the top destination for U.S. students who go abroad each year. European countries hosted more than 187,000 American students in the 2017-2018 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education.

“The conversations I’m hearing are not whether we cancel, but how we cancel,” said Brad Farnsworth, vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education. “It’s really about the logistics of getting students back home.”

Each college decides study-abroad cancellations. Many in recent weeks have opted to move classes online or close their campuses to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The White House travel restrictions likely increased the urgency for colleges considering pulling back their study-abroad programs, Farnsworth said.

“The calculations are really difficult but I think most programs are going to be canceling very soon,” he said.

International Students

The switch to online instruction at many colleges to reduce coronavirus exposure risks also raised new eligibility questions for foreign students on U.S. campuses. Students attending colleges certified through the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program are limited to taking one course online per semester.

(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
Students at the University of Washington in Seattle were told to leave campus by March 9.

The Department of Homeland Security issued new guidance last week saying that international students could continue their enrollment at colleges that have started holding all classes online without losing visa eligibility. International education groups had sought that clarification from federal agencies.

“There was great concern as schools were starting to make these decisions what effect it could have on international students,” said Rachel Banks, director of public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “International students do not want to find themselves inadvertently violating immigration status.”

Colleges are required through the new guidance to notify the DHS within 10 days of making the switch to online coursework.

Banks said there are about 1 million international students in the U.S., including more than 800,000 on college campuses and another 200,000 pursuing practical training with employers.

Because most college campuses are in the middle of the spring academic period, the travel restrictions won’t have a major effect immediately on international students seeking to come to the U.S., Banks said. But that could change if travel restrictions are prolonged.

“If it does go deeper into late April or into May, then certainly we are looking at some challenging times,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodie Morris at; Paul Hendrie at; Robin Meszoly at

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