US calls for feedback on conditional admissions policy by 7 June

Editor’s Note: The deadline has been extended to 14 June 2013.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has opened a call for stakeholder feedback on its draft guidance for “Bridge Programs and Conditional Admission.” Those wishing to respond must do so by this Friday – 7 June – via email to SEVPFeedback@ice.dhs.gov and with the subject line “Bridge Programs and Conditional Admission.”

Furthermore, the US Senate has introduced a bill that substantially overhauls the US immigration system, but proposed amendments are causing concern. ICEF Monitor reports on both issues below.

Proposed changes to conditional admissions

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is an agency of the DHS, and the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) is the branch within US Immigration that is concerned with policies, programmes, and monitoring for “school and exchange visitor programmes, nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors, and their dependents.”

We reported in November on proposed changes to the SEVP that would see new policies in place to govern visa processing for conditional admission or pathway programmes.

Conditional admission is provided to students who meet the academic requirements – but not the language requirements – for their planned programme of study. It allows students the opportunity to complete language upgrading with the assurance that, if they are successful in doing so, there is a place for them in their intended academic programme.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted:

“[Conditional admissions have] become increasingly popular as colleges recruit a more diverse group of international students who may have more-limited English proficiency.”

Pathway programmes – referred to as “bridge programmes” in the SEVP guidance – are an extension of conditional admissions that combine English language studies with post-secondary courses and represent, as the name suggests, a path to full-time academic study for international students.

The draft guidance from SEVP sets out a number of important changes to how student visas would be handled for students coming to the US on conditional admissions or to enter a pathway progamme. The main issues at play in the SEVP guidance are:

  • Currently, under conditional admission, institutions issue a single I-20 form to each student who is accepted to the university or college provisionally.
  • The DHS intends to require US institutions to issue separate I-20 forms to degree-seeking international students who need to improve their English before beginning regular academic courses.
  • After they have improved their language skills, they can apply for an additional I-20 that will grant them admission to regular academic study.

The measure is intended to refine policies on conditional admissions and pathway programmes, which blend intensive English and academic coursework. Officials from the SEVP point out that this is not new; they are merely enforcing existing regulations, which state that I-20′s can only be issued to those students who meet all standards for admission.

Many international students prefer conditional admission because they receive the I-20 for a degree programme, rather than a language programme. Additionally, in the experience of some English language programme directors, US consulates are more reluctant to issue visas to language students because they appear “less committed” to long-term study.

And as The Chronicle highlighted, “Some foreign-government scholarship programmes require the single I-20 as evidence a sponsored student has been accepted by a degree programme, while many foreign students think a conditional admission offer will help them get an American visa more easily than if they applied to go to the US for language study only.” This is because it’s generally easier for students to obtain an F-1 visa if an I-20 is obtained first.

The draft guidance also proposes a time limit of one year on pathway programme studies and raises concerns of increased administrative burden for international students and receiving institutions alike.

Making the US less competitive

EnglishUSA (formerly known as the AAIEP – American Association of Intensive English Programs) has raised concerns about what the SEVP’s draft guidance will mean for the US’s international competitiveness. Patricia Juza, Immediate-Past Vice President for Advocacy for EnglishUSA and the director of the English language programme at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, has said:

“These changes potentially can make the US less competitive when compared with other countries, particularly for graduate programmes and undergraduate STEM programmes. We all want to find the best fit between students and schools, but if the DHS is going to put up roadblocks, we risk not being able to get the best quality students at our institutions.”

EnglishUSA is preparing its response to the SEVP’s draft guidance – as are stakeholder groups across the US – and the association has called on its members to contribute their feedback as well.

Broader US immigration bill moving forward

As the SEVP’s response window draws to a close this week, the industry feedback that results will occur against a backdrop of broader immigration reform in the US. On 16 April 2013, the US Senate introduced a bill – the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act – that substantially overhauls the US immigration system.

The bill includes a number of provisions relevant to international students, notably increased opportunities for work visas for international graduates of US STEM programmes, and it has won broad support from US educators.

NAFSA, the US association of international educators, has issued a statement of support for the bill and urged its passing at the recent NAFSA conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

The NAFSA statement also illustrates a growing concern among educators that legislators may be tempted to introduce amendments to the bill that could be damaging to international programmes:

“We urge the Senate to resist any amendments that would jeopardise the opportunities presented by this bill by placing unnecessary and counterproductive impediments in the way of foreign students who wish to pursue their educational and professional goals in the United States.

Although these amendments may be justified by their proponents as adding to our security, the truth is that targeting foreign students, or for that matter, universities and colleges, does nothing to enhance US security, and in fact only accomplishes the opposite.”

For the moment, these concerns seems to largely centre around amendments affecting the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP), a work-study programme that draws 170,000 international visitors to the US each year.

Industry groups that are actively engaged with the EVP – including WYSE Travel Confederation (WYSETC), the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange (AIECE), and Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) – have expressed their strong concerns over amendments that bear on the EVP.

The PIE News sums up the central issues arising from proposed amendments to the bill:

“A major gripe concerns an amendment reclassifying EVP participants as foreign ‘workers’ in a section of the bill aimed at tackling human trafficking. This would prohibit charging fees to EVP participants, eliminating resources to support them while in the US, and require employers who participate to post bonds with the DHS for the interns they hire.

‘Without programme revenue, which allows the EVP to operate without appropriated funds, the public-private partnership that drives the programme will collapse,’ AIECE wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is currently reviewing the bill.”

The official statement from WYSETC on the proposed amendments asserts: “Action is urgently required to stop changes to the present legislation that could cause significant damage to the member organisations of WYSE Travel Confederation and the wider youth travel industry, significantly reducing programmes that currently attract hundreds of thousands of young people to the United States every year to participate in educational and cultural programmes that have a work element, including summer work, internships, traineeships and au pair schemes among others.

The proposed changes to the law would place severe restrictions on the operations of legitimate agents for young adults from around the world looking to participate in educational programmes, gain valuable work experience and learn first-hand about American culture and society.”

The US immigration bill is expected to go to a Senate vote in June and no doubt it, along with the SEVP’s forthcoming guidance on conditional admissions and pathway programmes, will have much to say about the US’s international competitiveness for years to come.



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