For the second time in three months, international college students in Minnesota and across the country fear for their academic future as the Trump administration mulls visa changes that would shorten the duration of their studies.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is taking comments through Monday on a proposal to cap most student visas at four years, a change that would affect students who are enrolled in longer graduate programs or who need more time to complete a degree. Students from several dozen African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries that have high visa overstay rates would be limited to two-year visas, as would those from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism — North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Those wanting to stay longer would have to apply for an extension.
The proposal is a departure from the existing practice in which students’ visas remain valid as long as they are in school. And it could have major implications for the roughly 11,000 international students who enroll in Minnesota colleges each year.
“I personally feel that this is some sort of attack on the international students,” said Ratul Biswas, a University of Minnesota Ph.D. student from India who hopes to become a professor.
Biswas’ second year in the U’s doctoral mathematics program, which takes most students six years to finish, has been marked with uncertainty. In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a rule — which it later rescinded — that would have forced international students to leave the country or transfer to a new school if their college operated fully online in the fall.
The latest proposal, announced in September, is meant to improve program oversight, reduce fraud and prevent foreign adversaries from “exploiting the country’s education environment,” Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement. The department noted a few examples of international students having their visas extended dozens of times over the course of more than a decade.
The fate of the proposed rule will hinge on the November presidential election results. If former Vice President Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump, he could abandon the rule when he takes office.
Colleges across the country have pushed back on the proposal, arguing it would discourage top talent from coming to the United States. In a Sept. 30 letter to DHS, U President Joan Gabel urged the agency to retract the changes.
“The proposed new timelines for completion of an academic program fail to take into account the amount of time it actually takes to complete degrees under ordinary circumstances,” Gabel said.
About 5,500 international students are enrolled at the U’s Twin Cities campus this fall, more than half of them in graduate school programs. All told, international students make up about a quarter of the U’s graduate school population, enrollment statistics show.
International student enrollment in graduate and undergraduate programs would “very likely” plummet if this rule went into effect, said Scott Lanyon, the U’s vice provost and dean of graduate education. Any major loss would have far-reaching effects.
It would squeeze the budgets of colleges that rely on foreign students paying a premium; the U charges nonresident undergrads more than $33,000 a year in tuition, compared to about $15,000 for Minnesota residents. Local employers such as 3M, Target and Medtronic would have a smaller, less diverse talent pool to recruit from. And the U.S. could lose its reputation as a global higher education destination.
“International … education isn’t just about helping those students,” Lanyon said. “The reality is, it’s a win-win. It’s a win for the student but it’s a huge win for the United States, for the state of Minnesota, for the university.”
Graduate students and faculty in the U’s School of Mathematics were so alarmed by the DHS proposal that they wrote a letter to Attorney General Keith Ellison requesting he intervene. Some 120 students are enrolled in the mathematics Ph.D. program, about a third of whom are international students, said Richard McGehee, the school’s director of graduate studies.
“There’s a sense of anxiety. They also have this feeling that they’re not welcome,” McGehee said.
Students enrolled at colleges in the Minnesota State system are also organizing in opposition to the rule. Students United, a statewide student association representing more than 50,000 students attending Minnesota State universities, criticized the proposal in a public comment, saying it “criminalizes a group of people who are simply interested in securing the best education possible.” The group added that the rule would not stop the small portion of international students who intend to overstay their visas.
In fiscal 2019, DHS estimated that just 1.5% of foreign students and exchange visitors overstayed their visas. That calculation has been disputed by groups such as the National Foundation for American Policy, an immigration-focused think tank that noted the figure “is not an actual overstay rate but only an upper-bound estimate of individuals who DHS could not positively identify as leaving the United States.”
Victor Ayemobuwa, a graduate student who attends Southwest Minnesota State University, said the proposed rule throws his academic future into uncertainty. He is in the first year of a two-year master’s degree program and hopes to pursue a Ph.D. afterward. His home country of Nigeria has a visa overstay rate exceeding 10%, according to DHS, meaning his visa could be capped at two years under the proposal.
“What is at the back of my mind is what happens if my extension doesn’t get approved?” he said. “I’ve invested five years of my life in getting a degree.”