Covid-19 Travel Restrictions Loom Again for Colleges and Foreign Students


Nanxi Liu held out hope until August last year that she would make it to campus to begin her studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. But a ban imposed by the Trump administration on most travel from China during the pandemic made a flight to Boston difficult, and with U.S. embassies and consulates closed, most visa processing was at a standstill.

Ms. Liu, 19 years old, settled on taking her first year of classes online from her home in Shenyang.

She now hopes to land a visa interview to start sophomore year surrounded by her classmates. If not, she said, “I might consider transferring to another school where I can go there physically.” She is considering Hong Kong, while her father is pushing for Japan. Wellesley said it is in contact with its international students and is completing details for the fall semester.


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U.S. colleges and universities are bracing for—and trying to avoid—a second year of significant declines in international students, as foreign students from much of the world remain blocked from entering the country. Enrollment by new international students plunged 43% this school year, according to a survey from 10 higher-education associations; most of those who enrolled took classes remotely.

The U.S. schools stand to lose billions of dollars in tuition and fees if new international students can’t make it to campus this fall, as most pay full freight and subsidize discounts for domestic students. International enrollment accounts for 15% or more of the student population at some schools. The institutions have implemented widespread budget cuts and salary freezes to counter financial losses tied to the Covid-19 pandemic, and have warned they might need to slash expenses more aggressively if tuition revenue and state support continue to slide.

U.S. embassies and consulates in India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and some other countries have begun to process visas, often giving priority to those for students and families, but appointments for mandatory in-person interviews remain limited. As of March 1, 43 out of 233 consular posts were operating at full capacity, according to the State Department.

Arizona State enrolled nearly 9,000 foreign students last fall, off 7.8%.


Matt York/Associated Press

The constraints on travel from China, which sends more students to the U.S. than any other country, leave students seeking visas by qualifying for case-by-case exceptions or applying at U.S. consulates in other countries.

“If they can go to any other country to get a student visa appointment, they will do it,” said

Leon Fresco,

an immigration attorney who served as a top immigration-policy official in the Obama administration. “But there is nowhere near enough capacity at consulates abroad for the 100,000 or so students from China that would normally come to the U.S.”

Similar travel restrictions are in place for students from Brazil, Iran and South Africa. Students are exempted from travel bans applied to most of Europe and the U.K., though visa-processing activities there are extremely limited.

“There is no single magic bullet that will reopen us to international students this fall. If there were, we would be pushing that button as hard as we could,” said

Terry Hartle,

senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education, the industry’s main lobbying group.

‘There is no single magic bullet that will reopen us to international students this fall. If there were, we would be pushing that button as hard as we could.’

— Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs, American Council on Education

Mr. Hartle said his group has pushed the State Department to reopen embassies and expedite visa processing, but one challenge is that the Biden administration isn’t yet fully staffed with political appointees there or in the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the student-visa program.

“We are desperately anxious to work with the government to do this,” Mr. Hartle said. “But we need people to interact with.”

Representatives from the State and Homeland Security departments didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Holly Singh,

executive director of Arizona State University’s International Students and Scholars Center, is optimistic that if embassies reopen, the school could post a record year for international enrollment.

But he noted potential roadblocks, including nearly nonexistent vaccination opportunities across Africa and much of India, and concerns among Chinese parents about letting their children travel to a country where the coronavirus continues to spread.

Arizona State enrolled nearly 9,000 international students this past fall, down 7.8%. The impact was blunted somewhat by the school’s large online operation, so many students could still take classes from home.

Students typically begin applying for visas in the spring, to ensure they have authorization in hand for the start of school in August. If embassies and consulates don’t increase their capacity to process applications soon, university leaders warn, the backup could result in another lost year.

“If students don’t know they’ll be able to come in the fall by March or April, if they don’t have that clearance by then, you don’t really have room to recover,” said

Katherine Newman,

chancellor for academic programs at the University of Massachusetts system.

Juan González,

dean of graduate education at the University of Texas, Dallas, said he is paying particularly close attention to students from Iran, who need to travel through a third country, and those in Pakistan, where he said appointments are available in Karachi but not everywhere in the country.

“We are trying to be as proactive as possible,” Dr. González said. UT Dallas’s international enrollment fell 25% last year, to about 4,100. “We’re all banking that vaccination rates will go up, Covid cases will go down, travel will open up,” he added.

UT Dallas is now using express mail to send paperwork proving students have been admitted to the school, a required part of the visa application, dispatching the forms as soon as students accept their offers.

Yuanfeng Song, of Beijing, wants to travel to Vanderbilt’s Nashville campus via Singapore, where he would quarantine and get a visa interview.


Yuanfeng Song

Tens of thousands of students deferred their enrollment last fall, hoping they would be able to make it to campus this spring or for next school year. As closures drag on, that still isn’t a sure thing.

This school year, foreign students not already in the country could enroll in fully online classes, an exception from regular student-visa rules. It hasn’t been announced yet whether those allowances will continue next school year.

Yuanfeng Song took a gap year rather than start Vanderbilt University classes remotely from his home in Beijing last fall. Now, he sees a path to the Nashville, Tenn., campus via Singapore, where he would quarantine, get a visa interview, then continue on to the U.S.

More on the Coronavirus Pandemic

“It would be very terrifying if I’m going to have my freshman year online. I think that’s going to be a disaster,” said Mr. Song, 18. He said he would likely look for an exchange program to begin his studies in person if he can’t get to Vanderbilt.

The school said it monitors communications for updates on the visa-application process and the phased reopening of consulates and embassies, and will begin accepting requests for those required forms next week.

Mr. Song is waiting for Vanderbilt to send his updated proof of admission before booking travel to Singapore. “The sooner the better,” he said.

The coronavirus has pushed nearly half of U.S. colleges and universities into some degree of remote learning, a change that’s sending shock waves through small college town economies. WSJ’s Carlos Waters explains. (Video from 8/19/20)

Write to Melissa Korn at [email protected]

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