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Proposed changes to conditional admissions in the US causing concern

Recently, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced their intentions 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. Currently, under conditional admission, institutions issue a single I-20 form to each student who is accepted to the university or college provisionally.

The measure is intended to refine policies on conditional admissions and pathway programmes, which blend intensive English and academic coursework. This practice emerged as a means to accommodate applicants of sufficient academic calibre who lack the language skills required for admission.

More clarity coming

Officials from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), the branch of Homeland Security tasked with monitoring compliance to student visa regulations, 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 are eagerly awaiting further clarity on the announcement.

The DHS will issue draft guidelines for conditional admissions and pathway programmes before the end of this year, at which point anyone is able – and encouraged – to post comments within a two-week period.

This feedback can be submitted, once the draft is issued, via the Study in the States website.

The American Association of Intensive English Programs (AAIEP) together with the Consortium of University and College Intensive English Programs (UCIEP) will also likely issue their own statements in response, as will NAFSA.

Confusion and concern amongst institutions

The announcement has caused discontent among affected institutions, who feel that the measure ignores proven educational policies and hurts international student recruitment.

“Universities and colleges continue to be concerned about how conditional admissions will operate in the future,” explained Patricia Juza, Vice President for Advocacy for the AAIEP and Director of Continuing and Professional Studies Global Programs at City University of New York – Baruch College. She continued:

“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.”

The new policy also seems to conflict with the US’s goal to attract more international students.

To date, the US remains the most attractive country for international students, as the recent ICEF i-grad Agent Barometer also showed. However, colleges and universities in the US are curious how recruitment agencies abroad view the recent announcement, and fear that these regulations will affect the attractiveness of the US as a study destination.

Furthermore, studies have shown that family is a powerful influence on study abroad decisions, and US-based institutions are also concerned that parents will encourage their children to study in a destination that utilises a more streamlined admissions process, with more reliable admissions results for their children looking to earn full degrees.

Repercussions for student recruitment

Many international students prefer conditional admission because they receive the I-20 for a degree programme, rather than a language programme. 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. Additionally, it’s generally easier for students to obtain an F-1 visa if an I-20 is obtained first.

And government scholarship bodies are reputed to privilege those students who have received an admission offer to a degree programme, whether conditional or not. So far it is uncertain how these changes will affect scholarship programmes such as Brazil’s popular Science without Borders and Saudi Arabia’s huge KASP programme.

Furthermore, Juza pointed out that in the spring of 2011, the US Department of Commerce sponsored a trade mission to Indonesia and Vietnam. During this visit, the governments of both countries stated that they are willing to fund doctoral students obtaining degrees in the US, but only if they are first admitted to a degree programme. After admittance is secure, they will offer funding for language proficiency if it is also needed.

Recruitment in Iraq might also be affected, since many students who come on a J-1 visa are required to complete one year of an intensive English programme.

In some countries, particularly China, the flexibility of conditional admission actively attracts students. These are countries that often supply applicants with good marks but insufficient language skills. And for Chinese students studying for high-school exit and university entrance exams, provisional admission means relief from an additional language test.

Finally, additional I-20’s would cause a more complicated admissions process, including the payment of additional fees and resubmission of financial documents.

Making conditional admission clumsy

The change was first announced at the fifth annual AAIEP advocacy day. Participants – representatives of English-language programmes around the country – had arrived at the workshop expecting relief from the SEVP over lengthy waiting times for re-certification and adjudication of applications for the right to issue I-20s.

Despite the SEVP’s attempts to frame the announcement as a matter of enforcing existing policy, affected institutions have reacted with surprise and dismay.

Juza said she felt that “it happened without warning.” She and other administrators are disappointed that the SEVP did not consult the sector over the change, which they warn could have detrimental results for recruitment.

On the educator side, conditional admission provides a means to combat cheating in overseas applications, allowing institutions to confirm a student’s language proficiency once they arrive on campus, and before they enrol in courses. Industry professionals are all concerned with maintaining quality standards, and educators are keen to engage in an open dialogue with SEVP to explain how their admissions policies work and how they enforce quality.

Homeland Security flexes muscles

It appears the agency is already acting on its announcement. At several universities undergoing re-certification in the student visa programme, administrators have received reminders to issue students with the I-20 appropriate to their status.

SEVP’s actions in this case appear to reflect a more general shift in Homeland Security policy, aimed at strengthening control over the influx of international students.

The enforcement of I-20 regulations were announced simultaneously with new regulations on IEP student vacations. International students who are studying at a US intensive English programme are now required to study a full academic year (26 weeks) before taking a break.

And only last August, ICEF Monitor reported that the US House of Representatives had passed legislation requiring university-run English-language institutes that receive international students to be separately accredited. However, they later backtracked, saying that proof of institutional accreditation would be sufficient.

Given that turnaround, it’s possible that the DHS will reconsider the proposed I-20 changes based on feedback from the industry.

Whatever the result will be, it seems clear that US authorities are increasingly concerned about quality standards in international education. But with measures like these, policy makers may drive away the very students they intend to control.

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