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International students enrich our higher education campuses in countless ways. Most of the more than one million international students enrolled in U.S. higher education attend four-year undergraduate or graduate programs. Yet some 90,000 international students, or 8 percent, enroll in our community colleges, the majority in California, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

These students are not eligible for federal or state aid, while paying the maximum amount in community college tuition — which can be two or three times the in-state rate, or even as much as eight times the in-state rate in the case of California.  Many institutions rely on their full-freight tuition, as it often helps subsidize  financial aid packages for low-income Americans. One study reports that international students at community colleges add $2.4 billion to the nation’s economy annually, supporting more than 14,000 jobs.

Since the coronavirus epidemic, though, a dizzying array of new policy changes and reversals from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has made obtaining visas and being an international student more difficult than ever, both for students and the institutions they attend.

The initial regulation — which prevented international students from staying in the U.S. if studying in an online-only academic program — has been on the books for some time but was exempted to allow for flexibility during the coronavirus pandemic.

By early July, even in the face of ever-climbing coronavirus cases, ICE released a policy that would have eliminated that online-only exemption and forced institutions to offer their international students at least one in-person course — or  risk their deportation.

Related: Losing international students because of the pandemic will damage colleges financially

A few weeks later, ICE seemingly submitted to growing pressure to reverse the policy entirely, only to later clarify that new international students enrolling in fully online programs were indeed ineligible for a student visa this fall.  Continuing students, in other words, could be in online-only programs, but newly enrolled international students could not.

The campaign to reinstate the exemption was the result of legal action by many elite four-year institutions and advocacy groups, notably Harvard University and MIT.  

“Community colleges also allow international students to obtain credentials in vocational, technical, allied health, and engineering programs that may be difficult to access in their home countries or unavailable at four-year universities.”

However, even as we wait for official fall enrollment numbers, there is evidence the regulation is likely to disproportionately impact international community college students. In early July, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley of California’s community colleges —  home to more international students than their counterparts in any other state —  announced that most of the state’s 116 community colleges could not offer in-person classes.

Beyond California, community colleges nationally are the most likely of any nonprofit higher education sector to go primarily online, recent data suggests.

Without physical classes, new international students are unable to come to the U.S., making them much less likely to enroll at all. The prospect of international students not enrolling due to visa regulations is both an unnecessary and unfortunate consequence of poor policymaking.

Forcing colleges to either offer in-person classes or lose new students entirely denies them the flexibility needed in these extraordinary times, while putting international students in jeopardy. It also hurts community colleges, which can be a great place for international students to start their U.S education at diverse and less expensive institutions on their way to the job market, or to a four-year degree.

Related: Community colleges can be the engine of economic opportunity but first they must adapt

The benefits of enrolled international students go both ways. Community colleges, more regionally and locally focused than four-year institutions, become more globally minded and diverse when international students decide to enroll. Many community colleges with large international student populations are in close proximity to four-year universities, and have strong credit and transfer agreements, such as De Anza College’s agreements with the University of California campuses.

One study reports that international students at community colleges add $2.4 billion to the nation’s economy annually, supporting more than 14,000 jobs.

Community colleges also allow international students to obtain credentials in vocational, technical, allied health, and engineering programs that may be difficult to access in their home countries or unavailable at four-year universities.

While those advocating for international students have scored a few important wins in the last few months, it has not been an equal win for all students. Given the Trump administration’s open hostility to international students, immigrants and undocumented residents, we can expect additional regulations and restrictions to continue emerging, especially in the run-up to the election.

International students at all types of institutions deserve our support. We must advocate for those attending community colleges as forcefully as we do for those in the four-year sector. 

Dan Kent is a senior policy analyst at Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit education research organization. His research interests include higher education finance policy, equitable workforce development and state higher education policy reform to better serve immigrant, undocumented, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities.

This story about international students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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