STL Today: Mosaic's Executive Director Cohen Comments on International Students' Economic Impact

St. Louis’ international students, universities blindsided by new immigration rule

From the time Harry Wei, of China, first set foot on campus, he knew he wanted to take a heavy course load to graduate a semester early and save on tuition. Now entering his final semester at Washington University, he is on track to achieve his goal.

But new restrictions from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, will force him to risk his health to complete his studies.

The agency announced Monday that international students in the U.S. on F-1 visas would have to depart the country if they do not take at least one in-person class this fall semester. Students now face a choice — attend classes in person and expose themselves to a higher risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, or make an unsafe and expensive trip back home.

Students are not the only ones taking a hit from the new rule.

Universities rely on international students to help fund a large portion of their annual operating budget. Many pay full tuition because they do not qualify for federal scholarships and grants reserved for U.S. citizens.

“Universities are already facing budget hits from students taking gap years or transferring, so this is a double punch,” said Diane Metzger, a St. Louis lawyer with Tueth Keeney who specializes in immigration law.

Harvard and MIT, two schools that have announced they will hold classes online only this fall, have challenged the rule in federal court, claiming that the administration bypassed the normal rule-making procedure.


“When you have international students that come here, they not only pay tuition, they pay for apartments, food, and more,” said Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project. The local economy relies on them, she said.

International students are also key to supporting innovation and growth in the region, Cohen says.

Over a third of local international students are in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields, said Cohen. “After graduating, they often take jobs in growing economic clusters, such as agricultural sciences with jobs at Bayer, KWS, or Danforth Plant Science Center, or at companies like Square and Cortex, startups in innovation or our larger tech companies,” she added in an email.

Research done by the Mosaic Project in 2015 and 2016 showed the St. Louis region had nearly 18,000 open jobs in STEM fields, and recommended recruiting and retaining international students to fill this pipeline.