For the past several weeks, higher education institutions and businesses both in New Jersey and across the country awaited word from Washington, D.C., about the future of a post-graduate program for international students, as well as certain visas, in light of the pandemic.
Of most immediate concern, however, is a July 6 announcement from the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which states that F-1 and certain other visa holders attending colleges with 100% online classes this fall will not be permitted to enter or remain in the U.S. The announcement has sparked outrage and a sharp rebuttal from the higher education community. Rutgers, for one, issued a statement from its new president Jonathan Holloway, in which he said, “Rutgers University strenuously disagrees with this rule change and the spirit of the change, which appears to target our vibrant international student community… we will do everything in our power to defend their ability to remain in the United States.”
Earlier, President Donald Trump’s June 22 proclamation was a mixed bag for international students and workers.
And it comes as New Jersey colleges, large and small and like others around the nation, anticipate that even if campuses open for in-person instruction this fall, there’ll be a significant drop in first-year international students thanks to the COVID-19 crisis. The reason for the expected drop is a combination of practical issues: Many consulates and embassies are closed, which means visas can’t be processed; travel restrictions remain in some parts of the world; and even in areas where borders are open, flights are limited.
The June 22 proclamation made no changes to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which extends F-1 student visas up to three years for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors and one year for students in other disciplines so they can gain work experience.
But there’s now a hold at least until the end of the year on H-1B visas for highly skilled workers (which can be an extension to the OPT program), H-2B visas for nonagricultural seasonal workers, J-1 visas for cultural exchange/work-study programs and L visas for transfers within companies.
According to the June 22 proclamation, people who come to the U.S. through these visas “present[s] a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”
It’s not a view shared by some in New Jersey’s business and higher education communities, which say the workers who enter the U.S. on the H-1B visa specifically are often highly educated individuals with unique skill sets. In business, there’s concern that curtailing international talent would affect the biopharmaceutical and technology sectors in particular.
“We need these immigrants, who include some of the best and brightest scientists, to not only help find a treatment and vaccine for COVID-19 but also to develop new treatments and cures for diseases and to solve future global challenges,” said Debbie Hart, president and CEO of BioNJ, which represents 400 research-based life sciences companies and stakeholders in the state. “Our biopharmaceutical industry’s competitive edge depends in part on keeping and attracting these leading minds from wherever they hail. We believe that a diverse workforce is important and essential to a successful biopharmaceutical industry.”
New Jersey Business & Industry Association president and CEO Michele Siekerka agreed, noting the impact can reach beyond technology companies. “The reduction of these work visas makes it more challenging for New Jersey tech companies to find high-skilled workers,” she said. “Those non-tech companies that outsource U.S. companies to expedite the technology side of their businesses could conceivably be impacted with lesser availability of high-skilled workers in the tech field.”
Additionally, Siekerka said, the number of international college students employed by Jersey Shore businesses through the J-1 program — more than 10,000 in 2018 — will likely be impacted by a combination of the proclamation and business owners’ own limitations on hours or hires during New Jersey’s reopening.
Conflicting viewpoints from college students
Before Trump’s proclamation limiting visas but preserving the OPT training program, college students were vocal on both sides of the issue. A letter signed by more than 30 campus Republican student organizations (none from New Jersey) claimed thousands of jobs could be saved by eliminating OPT and that the H-1B program is one of the “biggest threats to American college graduates today.” H-1B’s supporters “tout that these workers are exceptionally skilled foreigners at the height of their fields. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, these workers are not particularly skilled at all — they are just cheap,” the letter stated.
Another letter signed by 72 graduate student associations, including those at Rutgers-New Brunswick, Rutgers-Newark and the Stevens Institute of Technology, presented a sharply different opinion. They cited a report commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Foundation that concluded there’s a shortage of domestic workers to fill highly skilled positions, and that 90% of Chinese graduate students and 83% of those from India remain in the U.S. after graduation to start businesses, file patents and help ensure American competitiveness in research and development.
Anthony Yung, a second-year medical student at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says advocacy for international students at the state and federal levels is a priority for the Rutgers Graduate Student Association, of which he is president. “It’s not a partisan issue,” said Yung, who was born in New York but raised in Hong Kong. “It’s recognizing the contributions international students bring to the United States. Once they’ve completed their education here, they want to use their knowledge in the workplace to drive American innovation.”
At the same time, Yung said, it’s a human issue. “I see how the delays in processing OPT applications, denials of H-1B applications and bureaucratic red tape affect international students, and how alone they often feel.”
Preserving OPT and opening U.S. borders for international students and workers is an intellectual property concern, Yung said. If the U.S. becomes more isolated, he said, international students will turn to other countries, such as Canada and Australia, to learn and use their skills. “Immigrants have historically been among our country’s greatest innovators, such as Elon Musk, and founded about 20% of Fortune 500 companies. International students also support about 455,000 U.S. jobs and contribute $39 billion to our economy. There’s a lot at stake.”
From an institutional perspective, colleges understand the consequences as well. “Higher education by its nature is international, and our students and scholars from across the globe are a vital part of the Rutgers community,” said Dory Devlin, a spokesperson for Rutgers University. “President Trump’s proclamation … will negatively affect the ability of research universities like Rutgers to attract the best scientists and scholars from around the world to spur innovation and advance our economy.”
Changes to the campus landscape
According to the 2019 Open Doors Report, New Jersey has 23,456 international students, including those in undergraduate, graduate and OPT programs. Of those, about 77% attend one of five higher education institutions: Rutgers-New Brunswick, with 6,983; Stevens Institute of Technology, 3,709; New Jersey Institute of Technology, 3,264; Princeton University, 2,393; and Rutgers-Newark, 1,698. While their international student numbers are much fewer, even smaller colleges in the state host scholars from outside the U.S. Georgian Court University in Lakewood, for example, has about 34 students representing 15 countries at the Catholic school.
An Institute of International Education survey said that 88% of higher education institutions expect international enrollment to drop this year. At Rutgers, for example, Devlin said that to date, 960 international first-year students plan to enroll universitywide in the fall, down 17% from last year. Chris Krzak, vice president for enrollment management and retention at Georgian Court University, similarly expects fewer new international students, and of the 34 current students, about half returned home. One organization, the NAFSA: Association of International Educators, estimated that collectively, the decline in international enrollment will result in losses of at least $3 billion this fall.
When New Jersey colleges closed their campuses in March because of COVID-19, many international students had little time to make a decision — return to their home countries while borders were open, or remain on campus, if permitted.
Emma Argenal, a junior civil engineering major from Honduras, said she came to The College of New Jersey because of its learning environment, campus community and laboratory facilities. While international students were offered the opportunity to stay on campus, ultimately, she had an option many did not — her father and other family members live in Gloucester County.
Still, it was a challenging decision for her. She could head back to Honduras to be with other family members, whom she now hasn’t seen for about a year, but risk a closed border. Or she could remain in New Jersey for her education. She’s now taking summer classes from her father’s home, missing out on an internship opportunity in the U.S. that was canceled because of the pandemic.
“I was very concerned I wouldn’t be able to come back [from Honduras], so I stayed,” she said. “I have a friend who went back to China. He’s concerned that even if remote instruction is offered in the fall, he won’t be able to have the connectivity to access classes.”
Krzak of Georgian Court University said international students remaining on campus during the pandemic gave Georgian Court a two-fold opportunity. “It’s given us a way to pilot our social distancing plans as well as put into practice our mission of taking care of the individual,” he said. As to what the fall might bring, he said plans are for a “hyflex” model of instruction, which is a blend of face-to-face and virtual learning. “It will be educational as usual — it’s the experience that will be different.”