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U.S. immigration officials have issued new guidance saying new international students -- unlike current international students -- cannot come to the U.S. to take an entirely online course of study.

However, while one expert noted a lack of clarity on this point, the guidance issued Friday by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program seems to affirm that new international students may enroll in hybrid programs consisting of a mix of in-person and online courses, as long as their coursework is not "100 percent online." It also says that students will not be at risk of deportation if their institutions switch from an in-person or hybrid mode to an online-only mode in the middle of the term due to the pandemic.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is a division of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE.

More than 20 universities and 20 states filed various lawsuits to block an ICE directive that would have prohibited continuing international students from taking all their courses online. While the government agreed to rescind that directive in response to litigation, the rescission left the fate of new international students unclear.

The new guidance falls short of what colleges were asking for. Higher education groups had advocated for new international students to be granted visas to come to the U.S. to start their college programs regardless of whether their institutions planned in-person, hybrid or online-only modalities for the fall semester.

Miriam Feldblum, the executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group that advocates for policies that are welcoming to students, said the group is disappointed that newly admitted international students weren't extended the same flexibility as current students. But she said the guidance it is still "a positive step" in that it "addresses specifically that new students can enter the U.S. to pursue programs that are hybrid."

The SEVP guidance, framed as an FAQ, includes a question that asks whether students can apply for a visa to enter the U.S. for a hybrid program that includes more than one online class. Regulations typically restrict international students from taking more than one online course at a time.

The answer notes that visa decisions are at the discretion of the Department of State, not SEVP. However, it goes on to state that students seeking to enroll in hybrid program involving more than the one online class normally allowed can maintain their visa status during the fall term. The guidance adds, "Nonimmigrant students in New or Initial status after March 9 will not be able to enter the United States to enroll in a U.S. school as a nonimmigrant student for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100 percent online."

A State Department official suggested via email that the agency would honor SEVP guidance on online learning in making decisions about visas.

“On July 24, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that nonimmigrant students and schools certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) should abide by SEVP guidance originally issued in March 2020, which allows some distance learning in excess of regulatory limits due to the public health emergency generated by COVID-19,” the State Department official said. “Students who satisfy SEVP requirements as reflected on the DHS form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility) and in [the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System] may qualify for student visas.”

Jenny Lee, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, said on Twitter that "While this #StudentBan-lite version will probably move forward with less public protest, it still pressures universities to go [face-to-face]."

"There’s already too many challenges for internationals across time zones, firewalls, internet bandwidth," Lee said. "While internationals tend to have higher retention rates than domestics, the online challenges from abroad will certainly make their success and continuation far more difficult."

Brad Farnsworth, the vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education, said while the association is “disappointed that there’s inconsistency between the treatment for existing students who are in the United States who will be allowed to enroll in fully online institutions and the treatment of new students,” it's nonetheless pleased to see the flexibility for hybrid learning options.

But Farnsworth added the new FAQ doesn’t resolve everything. “We still have questions, and we’re keeping our options open as to how to respond.”

Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, echoed the need for greater clarity.

"These are welcome clarifications that move in the direction that will help most schools plan for a productive and safe fall 2020 semester," Banks said. "This guidance confirms continuing students can pursue a full course of study online, whether they are still in the U.S. or whether they need to return from outside the U.S., and that new students cannot enter the United States to pursue a full course of study online. However, these guidelines are less clear for new or initial students who wish to enter the United States to pursue a hybrid course of study that is less than 100 percent online. We are carefully examining this promising language."

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