Directive Barring Foreign National Students from Studying Online Reversed

COVID-19 Update

Date: July 20, 2020

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently reversed course on a directive that would have barred international college students from the United States if their colleges offered classes entirely online in the fall semester. After the directive was announced on July 6, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with support from many other universities and tech companies, filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to reverse it. On July 14, during a court hearing scheduled for arguments in the lawsuit, it was announced that the schools had reached an agreement with ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, under which the government rescinded the policy.

With the new directive revoked, schools will follow ICE guidance from March that allows international students to temporarily count online classes toward a full course of study in excess of the normal limits, under which international students are allowed only one class or three credit hours online each term. ICE is still advising foreign national students not yet in the United States to remain abroad.

According to the nonprofit Institute of International Education, there are more than 1 million foreign national students enrolled in institutions of higher education — about 5% of the total student body. The July 6 directive would have forced many to leave the United States unless they were able to transfer to a school with in-person instruction with only a month’s notice before many fall semesters would have started.

The July 6 directive would have also left universities scrambling to rework plans for the fall semester to add in-person instruction or face significant financial losses due to tuition shortfalls.

In addition, employers would have faced a gap in the talent pipeline. Demand for science and engineering workers has outpaced overall employment growth over the last decade. The National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policy research on issues of national importance, including immigration, released a report in 2017 highlighting the number of foreign students studying in in-demand fields. According to the report, foreign nationals account for 81% of the full-time graduate students in electrical and petroleum engineering, 79% in computer science, 75% in industrial engineering, 69% in statistics, 63% in mechanical engineering and economics, 59% in civil engineering and 57% in chemical engineering.

Closing Thoughts

Many employers must consider international graduates from U.S. universities when looking for STEM talent. The reversal of the July 6 directive avoids an immediate, significant gap in that talent pipeline. Additionally, the post-graduate work authorization programs remain intact. Foreign student graduates of STEM degree programs are eligible for up to three years of work authorization before they must be sponsored for a work-based visa.


Contact your Thompson Hine immigration counsel to discuss any questions about this proclamation or other immigration issues impacting your workforce:

Sarah C. Flannery

Staci M. Jenkins

Additional Resources

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