Universities voice concern about visa delays, access barriers for international students

Leaders at universities across the country are voicing their concerns about the growing number of visa issuance delays for international students looking to enroll this upcoming school year. Higher ed leaders told Education Dive that international students awaiting F-1 student visas from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are experiencing unexpected delays of up to eight weeks. Students who applied for the Optional Practical Training program—which allows student visa holders to stay and work in the United States for up to three years post-graduation—have experienced delays of up to five months, they said.

International student enrollments on the decline amid uncertainty

Concerned about the implications for students, universities, and the nation’s talent pool, higher education officials and organizations have visited and written letters to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secretary of State, and Congress highlighting the delays and urging action to curb the loss of international students.

New enrollments for international undergraduate students took a dip between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years, falling by 2.9 percent; they declined another 6.3 percent the following year, according to the Institute of International Education. Writing to the House judiciary committee, the American Council on Education attributed this shift in part to “lack of predictability” in the visa issuance process, stating that “students need assurance that the rules will not suddenly change so they can make plans.”

Harvard President Larry Bacow, meanwhile, recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress about the ongoing uncertainty surrounding international student visas and the impact on students’ enrollment and post-graduate work. Visa issuance delays “are making these scholars’ attendance and engagement in the university unpredictable and anxiety-ridden,” Bacow wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. “Scholars have experienced postponements and disruptions for what have previously been routine immigration processes such as family visas, renewal of status, or clearance for international travel.”

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