• Dr. J. L. Witt

A note on international students during COVID-19

COVID-19 Academic Update 3.24.2020


A lot happens quickly during a crisis. I wrote an update 3 days ago and we’ve gone from social distancing to a two week stay at home order from Governor Inslee. We’ve gone from “protect the elderly and immune compromised” to “yes, people will die, but we can’t let our economy suffer more” all buffered with bumper sticker situational ethics, “Don’t let the cure become worse than the problem”. Although I may dust off Nicomachean Ethics to smelt the golden calf you’re worshiping, today I want to focus on a very academic issue: International Students.


Over the past 20 years, U.S. universities have slowly increased their international student population. Most universities needed to find new streams of revenue that would buffer their increasing discount rates for domestic students. International Students generally don’t received discounts/scholarships and pay a much higher net tuition rate than domestic students. To put it bluntly, these students are highly regulated (F-1 Visas), can pay tuition (must show full cost plus living expenses in a bank account), and have more obstacles to transfer to another university in the United States (retention rates). Even a modest increase to 5% international students can have the same effect as adding 10-15% more domestic students, depending on discount rates. For example, my university offers a 50% tuition discount to ministry majors, which will attract primarily domestic students who will also be able to procure other scholarships. Our international students are generally concentrated in business, education, and communication studies and may spend 1-4 semesters in an intensive English program before matriculating into the university. That is 4-6 years of full tuition compared to 2-4 years of discounted tuition.


Even before the COVID-19 crisis, international students were a vulnerable population with limits on their work hours, mandatory annual financial reports, F-1 Visa compliance, and the threat of deportation constantly hanging over their heads. Now, as schools ask students to leave campus and move classes online, international students are often stuck in a difficult situation. If they return home, they are not sure they will be able to re-enter the US or resume their course of study, and may face a lengthy quarantine before even entering their home country. If they don’t return home, many face a long period of isolation and no support system. Some universities are allowing international students to remain on campus, others are not.


My claim and call. If universities accept the tuition dollars from international students, then they accept the responsibility to be responsive to their needs. This was true before COVID-19, and is even truer in this continuing crisis. While we celebrate the safe return of our semester abroad and cultural trip students, we must ask, how would we want them treated if they could not return? Universities have a moral obligation to check-in on these students, to make changes in policy to help these students, and to step in to advocate for them if their ability to finish is mired in red tape and other politicized nonsense. If your university fails to support these students, you as educators and staff need to move beyond simply informing university policies and become advocates for these students. Tardy & Whittig (2017) wrote a great article on this advocacy for international students and it has been on my mind during this crisis.


Caveat. This does not diminish nor negate the crisis for all students and really all sectors of our society. This is going to leave a lasting impression on our society and we are starting to see some imbalance in our priorities. My concern and call is about equitable resources and responses for a uniquely vulnerable group of students. Of course all students matter and like many professors, I’ve worked a lot of hours over the last three weeks to help all of my students. Some students have very easy transitions to the online format, others are dealing with a lot of chaos and unstable living conditions, while trying to learn. All of these experiences and struggles matter, but sometimes we need a focused reminder of those on the margins, so we can journey with them and know them better.


If you have international students in your classes: 1. Ask how they are doing. 2. Ask about their living situation. 3. Ask about their support system. 4. Bring concerns to your dean, your provost, and other parts of the university. 5. Encourage your colleagues to join you.


Now about this indecent proposal concerning our elderly…

Tardy, C. M, and Whittig, E. (2017). On the ethical treatment of EAL writers: An update. TESOL Quarterly, 51(4), 920-930.

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