As COVID-19 swept the globe in Spring 2020, most American schools, colleges, and universities closed their campuses and shifted to online delivery of education. Though many students continued their studies remotely from their homes, 1 million international students in the US, including approximately 80,000 at the secondary level, were faced with difficult decisions and confusing options about their academics and life in the US.
Though some secondary schools continued offering residential support for their international students through the spring terms—either through on-campus boarding programs or with US host families—many could not. For some students, families decided it was safer to return home regardless. In deciding whether to leave the US—if they had a choice—students weighed costly flights and quarantine requirements; the feasibility of continuing their learning virtually in different time zones; and the likelihood of being able to return to their secondary school in the fall, or if graduating, to a US college or university.
Uncertainty loomed—for both those who stayed and those who left—and counselors braced for the impact of global uncertainty on their international students’ plans.
According to several NACAC member counselors in the US, many international students who graduated this spring were undeterred in their plans for fall enrollment, even if the semester would be taught completely online. The collective sentiment among the counselors was that international students who come to the US for secondary school, or to improve their English before college, committed to this academic journey long before the pandemic. As such, the counselors weren’t surprised that their students were determined to stay the course, barring restrictive visa policies and travel bans. As one counselor shared of their student, “One semester of college online wasn’t going to rattle him or his family.” A smaller number of international students requested deferrals to avoid the uncertainties of remote learning and other changes to the traditional US college experience.
Attention is now on rising seniors and those in gap year programs, and how their college admission processes may be impacted. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 will change how the college search, recruitment, and application process plays out for the class of 2021, but at this point it is unclear exactly how. Unfortunately for international students, who are also impacted by the Trump administration’s harmful rhetoric and policies toward immigrants and non-immigrants, uncertainties are even higher.
The Journal asked three NACAC members who work with international students in the US on the college application and transition process—Meghan Dangremond from Phillips Academy (MA), Erick Hyde from University of Pennsylvania’s English Language Program, and Rebecca Reidy from Gilmour Academy (OH)—to share their perspectives on the impacts of COVID-19 on their schools or programs and on this unique population.
Dangremond (Phillips): Currently, Andover is planning a virtual-first academic program, with a gradual in-person reopening. Students will be able to continue their Andover career entirely online, either due to travel limitations or family preference. Boarding and day students will be welcomed back to campus in phases, starting in September. We’ve implemented a comprehensive structure for testing, quarantine, and other safety-driven modifications to our traditional program.
Hyde (Penn ELP): While the University of Pennsylvania is planning to open using a hybrid delivery model, the ELP will remain fully online through the fall term. Teaching virtually since March has given us the confidence that we can offer the same level of high-quality instruction, advising, and student services that we provided when operating in person. Furthermore, with new students unable to secure visas to study in person, our program can reach a larger global audience by remaining virtual in the fall term.
Reidy (Gilmour): As of mid-July, an official decision had not been made for Fall 2020. The school is considering two models, with a hybrid situation most likely. For our international students, we are working on planning a fully online curriculum with the likelihood of students not being able to get back to campus in August. We are trying to plan a way for them to still feel part of our community—socially and academically—while staying in their home country.
Dangremond (Phillips): Recent changes to federal policy and public health trends have introduced immense uncertainty on this front. Back in the spring, student and family polling indicated an overwhelming interest in returning to Andover. This enthusiasm was muted only by the logistical challenges of travel restrictions and visa processing. However, the feedback so far has been consistent: If we can get them here safely, they’ll return to Andover.
Hyde (Penn ELP): Overall, coronavirus is having a devastating impact on the English language sector worldwide. Within our program, many students are sponsored by their home government or another organization and several have yet to determine their students’ plans for the fall, even at this late stage in the process. As such, our fall enrollment numbers are not finalized, and we are unsure of the impact coronavirus will have.
Reidy (Gilmour): Currently what we know is that our students, especially those in China, are not going to be able to get to campus in August due to travel bans and fears related to the COVID-19 situation in the US. For our returning students, we are looking at ways to keep them enrolled through an online program for a semester at a time, returning to campus when possible. For our new students, visa issues and concerns with starting high school virtually may lead to some choosing to unenroll or defer to Fall 2021.
Dangremond (Phillips): This summer, families were primarily concerned about travel and the feasibility of resuming our residential experience. The priority had been returning to our normal routine as soon as possible. Now, with coronavirus cases surging in the US, physical safety is a much greater concern.
Hyde (Penn ELP): People are worried about the safety of their children in the US, which includes their health, but also the environment and how they will be welcomed, treated, and cared for. When coronavirus hit, sponsors experienced their students sheltering while they tried madly to repatriate them. They also experienced the stress, fear, cost, and time that came with it. Now they are experiencing unfriendly US government policies that seem to send the message that their students are not wanted in the US. At this point, what has the US done that would make sponsors or parents feel confident that they can safely send their students half a world away to the US?
Dangremond (Phillips): As of early July, the biggest concern is if US federal policy will even allow for the safe enrollment of non-US citizens at American schools. If we don’t figure that out, all of this is moot. In the background, affordability issues are swirling. More families have come forward seeking financial support from Andover, which means more will need help in college. With all institutions feeling their budgets impacted, we worry about what resources will be available to that cohort going forward.
Hyde (Penn ELP): The testing world is a mess right now and that is very concerning to students. We have students in Oman who cannot take the IELTS Indicator, as it’s not offered. We have students who can’t meet the technical requirements for the TOEFL Home Edition. In the meantime, the DuoLingo English Test is not accepted universally. All of our undergraduate students typically take the SAT and they have no idea when they will be able to sit for the exam, if they can take it at all. The admission system was created around these testing benchmarks, which are now inaccessible.
Reidy (Gilmour): How our international students can highlight themselves outside of academics in their application is a rising concern. With a lot of outside activities being canceled, students are concerned with how they show they are “well-rounded” or have explored their “career paths” when they can’t do much of anything right now.
Dangremond (Phillips): Your virtual programming is worthwhile and using that space well will make an impact. When a campus tour is the main mode of research, our students cast remarkably narrow nets. But this spring, we saw them engage with a much broader array of institutions online. You have a captive audience—differentiate your institutions and grab their interest while it’s there.
Hyde (Penn ELP): Whether the students are in a US secondary school or a US-based intensive English program, colleges and universities must recognize that these students have already committed to US higher education, and that they are unique. They can’t be lumped with applicants applying from abroad or domestic applicants. Now more than ever, institutions need to be clear in communicating policies and procedures to this population. For instance, does your English language requirement recognize this group? How will these students’ unique needs be supported while at your school?
Reidy (Gilmour): Be patient with the counselors working with them. With so many unknowns right now, it is going to be a slower start in getting these students—many of whom have returned to China—rolling in the application process. Make sure to consider all time zones when planning virtual recruitment visits, especially when it comes to doing virtual high school visits for our students in Ohio, when we also have students in Asia.
In these uncertain times, counselors can be a point of dependability for international students as they embark on the college application process this fall. Counselors, including the three we’ve interviewed here, have already shown their willingness to stay connected to students, regardless of time zone, to support and counsel them this spring and summer. Transparency and communication around opportunities to learn about institutions and engage with admission representatives, as well as changes to admission policies, will be key to keeping counselors informed so that they can remain a trusted source for this critical pipeline of students.