Can New International Students Take Online Classes?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities were allowed to take just one online class per term. Due to COVID-19, the U.S. government allowed more flexibility to enroll in multiple online classes, and these rules were recently extended. But for new international students starting school in the fall, their ability to take online classes is dependent upon different factors.

“As a result of the impact from restricted international travels to the U.S. and challenges in securing U.S. visas in a timely manner to enter the United States, newly admitted international students may be unable to arrive on campus to study this fall semester,” says Luchen Li, director of global education at Goucher College in Maryland.

[Read: 3 Steps Incoming Fall 2021 International Students Should Take.]

New international students who are unable to arrive in the U.S. in time for the fall term may wonder what their options are, including whether they can take online classes. Here’s what they should know.

A Fully Online Class Schedule in the U.S. Is Not Allowed

Per government guidance, new international students pursuing academic studies (classified as F-1 nonimmigrants) or vocational studies (classified as M-1 nonimmigrants) cannot come to the U.S. this fall if they plan to enroll in a fully online course of study.

“In accordance with the March 2020 guidance, new or Initial F and M students who were not previously enrolled in a program of study on March 9, 2020, will not be able to enter the United States as a nonimmigrant student for the 2021-22 academic year if their course of study is 100 percent online,” Jonathan Moor, public affairs specialist with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in an email.

But new international students unable to enter the U.S. due to restricted travel, inability to secure a visa or health reasons may have options to take online classes, depending upon their school.

At the University of Houston, for example, new international students can “choose to start their program remotely in their home country or outside the U.S. without being in the F-1 visa status,” says Jin Zhang, director of the school’s International Student and Scholar Services Office.

UH has several fully online programs open to international students “who elect to study from their home country and are not in F-1 or J-1 visa status,” says Sarah Larsen, vice provost and dean of the UH Graduate School. The J-1 is a nonimmigrant visa for exchange visitor programs.

At San Jose State University in California, international students can stay in their home country and take online classes “and come to SJSU in early 2022 for the spring semester,” says Robin McElhatton, a spokesperson at the school.

Additionally, Li says many U.S. colleges and universities are resorting to their creativity and flexibility “through partnerships with institutions overseas to deliver the initial American experience for their new international students.”

One option that does not involve online classes, Li says, is students completing their first semester, and in some cases their first year, at an institution in their home country where they can take classes in person, stay in dormitories and interact with peers.

Li says Goucher offers online classes but they must be taken outside the U.S. Since Goucher will primarily offer in-person classes in fall 2021 with limited exceptions, he says international students will need to submit a procedural change by the first week of September that indicates their mode of instruction as online only due to the pandemic. That way, the school can inform the U.S. government’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program. International students can communicate this request to Goucher’s Office of Global Education, and once approved, the school will work with the student and faculty to create a schedule to accommodate remote learning.

[READ: Designated School Officials: What International Students Need to Know.]

“While neither format of such learning is a typical American experience, these U.S.-bound students can at least start their experience with an American curriculum, especially when the online courses are taught by faculty at the U.S. institutions,” Li says.

International students also have additional options to consider. McElhatton says if students cannot travel to the U.S. or choose to remain home for health and safety reasons, “they may defer their admission to the next semester, spring 2022, for a COVID-19 reason.” She says admitted fall 2021 international graduate students can defer to spring 2022 or fall 2022, depending on program availability.

Karen Edwards, associate dean and director of international student affairs at Grinnell College in Iowa, similarly says students have the option to defer their enrollment or apply for a personal leave of absence.

Taking Hybrid Classes Is Acceptable

While new international students cannot take a fully online course of study in the U.S., they are permitted to take a hybrid program, meaning one that combines online learning and face-to-face interactions.

“A new student should be allowed to enter the United States if they are engaged in a hybrid program, with some requirement for in-person learning,” Moor says.

New international students entering the U.S. for the first time in F-1 status “will need to be enrolled in at least one hybrid or in-person course to meet their full-time enrollment requirements: 12 units for undergrad and nine units for grad,” McElhatton says.

Taking hybrid classes allows students to maintain their nonimmigrant visa status while studying in the U.S., experts say.

[Read: What International Students Should Know About Maintaining Visa Status.]

“If their course load falls below full time they can lose status and have to leave the United States,” says Maureen Chang, founder of Alma Mater College Admission Consultants in California and a member of the board of directors for the Higher Education Consultants Association.

Experts recommend that new international students stay in contact with their school as policies can change. McElhatton says San Jose State’s International Student and Scholar Services office continues to send many emails and update its website, and will hold virtual town halls via Zoom this summer as the school learns more about what the fall semester will look like.

“Most U.S. institutions, including Grinnell, will transition back to in-person learning this fall,” Edwards says. “International students who didn’t leave the U.S., as well as those who hold a date-valid F-1 visa to return to the country, are eager to be back on campus again.”

Li says Goucher College anticipates that new international students will be able to enter the U.S. for a full course of study in person, and adds, “If they are not able to enter the U.S. due to travel or visa restrictions, we will work with the student.”

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