According to an announcement by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), international students must attend in-person classes if their institution offers them.
Those who refuse to follow the rules could face deportation.
This move ends an emergency exemption from this spring, which allowed foreign students to remain in the country as their institutions moved online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many students are now unsure whether they will be able to remain in the US.
Grace Wang, a student at Claremont McKenna College, said: “If we go online, I don’t have a choice but to go back to China.
“For me to be inside the borders of mainland China, within the firewall, the quality of my thesis will not be close to the quality of research I will be able to conduct within the States.”
Essie Liu, a senior at the University of Southern California, said: “It feels like the US is trying to kick us out.”
We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students, particularly those in online programmes, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools
– Larry Bacow
The move has been met with criticism from educational bodies and figures.
The American Council on Education said: “On its face, the guidance released today by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is horrifying. Iron-clad federal rules are not the answer at this time of great uncertainty.”
In a statement, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities said: “Schools need to be nimble as they adjust to such great unknowns. Yet the only thing certain under the administration’s new rules is that international students will needlessly be placed in limbo in the midst of a pandemic and possibly forced to go home mid-semester.”
The president of Harvard University, Larry Bacow, said: “We are deeply concerned that the guidance issued today by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement imposes a blunt, one-size-fits-all approach to a complex problem, giving international students, particularly those in online programmes, few options beyond leaving the country or transferring schools.”
He added that the decision “undermines the thoughtful approach taken on behalf of students by so many institutions, including Harvard, to plan for continuing academic programmes while balancing the health and safety challenges of the global pandemic”.
Several institutions have warned of considerable economic damage if the Trump administration pulls ahead with this move, particularly as they are preparing for predominantly-online autumn terms.
US colleges and universities host more than 1 million international students, and they contribute approximately $45 billion to the US economy.
Despite comprising around 12% of total enrolment, they contribute almost 30% of total fee revenue.
Earlier research showed that around 90% of foreign students remained in the US while planning to resume classes, and it is unknown how this new ruling will impact this figure.