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SEVP prohibits I-20 issuance for conditional admissions

SEVP has released long-awaited guidance on English proficiency and conditional admissions for US education institutions, confirming that universities are not allowed to issue certificates of eligibility for visas to students who do not meet their admissions requirements. This means many international students who study English before embarking on a degree may now require a separate I-20 for each course of study.

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Institutions which 'outsource' pre-degree English teaching can no longer issue an I-20 until the student has met all of the degree's language requirements

However, some questions remain about the impact the ruling will have on pathway and bridge programmes, with some courses already closing as a result of uncertainty around the regulations, as concerns grow over navigating red tape.

Some courses have already closed as a result of uncertainty around the regulations, as concerns grow over navigating red tape

This statute applies to students studying on either an F visa (covering most fields of study, including university and English language) or an M visa (for vocational study).

The guidance released this week on conditional admission states that education institutions cannot issue Forms I-20 – the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status students must obtain in order to study in the US – if the students do not meet the school’s English proficiency requirements (with the exception of ESL programmes).

This means universities must wait until students have met all the standards for admission to the programme of study listed on the Form I-20, which for many schools includes a minimum level of English proficiency.

Institutions which ‘outsource’ pre-degree English language study to another provider can no longer issue an I-20 until the student has reached the level of English required for the degree programme. Students who plan to study English before starting their degree, must now enter the US on an I-20 issued by the ESL provider.

Similarly, providers that offer pre-enrolment English language training in-house must issue the student two separate I-20s: one when they enrol on the English language programme and another when they have reached the required English level to commence their degree studies.

However, some schools have expressed uncertainty over how bridge programmes which involve other elements of study, such as academic preparation, will be affected.

“Schools may have to adjust practices in how they structure their pathway/bridge programme,” predicted Cheryl Delk-Le Good, executive director of English USA. “Once the guidance surrounding these programmes is released we hope to have even more clarification.”

Several institutions have reportedly closed programmes while awaiting further guidance, including Virginia International University, which announced the closure of its bridge programme on July 19.

A memorandum to VIU staff and faculty reads: “Effective immediately, VIU will no longer be able to accept, and issue Form I-20s for students who intend to participate in the Bridge Program.

“Because of this new policy issued by SEVP, VIU will be discontinuing the Bridge Program, and all of the necessary requirements.”

A spokesperson said the school has decreased the number of students it has offered conditional admission to, after making English proficiency mandatory for degree programme admissions, and as such hopes “that the impact of the new SEVP regulation won’t be significant for our university”.

“The concern surrounds the obvious disconnect that can (and does) happen between DHS and US Department of State consular officers overseas”

However, an SEVP spokesperson told The PIE News a student could come into the country under an I-20 issued by a bridge programme “if the student meets the requirements for conditional admission into the degree-granting school”.

And the changes to the regulation of conditional admissions were initially announced two years ago, meaning that many institutions have been preparing for this final ruling.

Nevertheless, some concerns remain.

There is some potential for miscommunication over the regulations, according to Marty Bennett, director of international admissions and services at the University of Findlay in Ohio.

“The concern surrounds the obvious disconnect that can (and does) happen between DHS and US Department of State consular officers overseas who do the visa interviews who may not be fully aware of the rule changes,” he said.

Problems could arise if State Department officials see that a student’s initial I-20 is only for a semester or a year (the length of most English language training courses) they will likely issue a visa matching that length of time, after which a student will need to apply for a new visa under the second I-20 when they begin their degree study.

For students planning to return home between the two courses, “That can be a significant inconvenience for students that will require a lot of prior planning in order to make certain they’d be able to return in time for their next academic term,” explained Bennett.

The guidance also lays out the correct procedure for submitting a Form I-20 issuance, record keeping and reporting.

Student records, which SEVP can request at any time, must include evidence that they have met all the standards for admission, including English language requirements, and schools must report its admissions requirements using Form I-17, it states.

Meanwhile, new guidance on English proficiency, also released last week, likewise specifies that I-20 issuance to F-1 or M-1 students based on conditional admission is prohibited. SEVP can request evidence of a school’s standards for admission and school use of the English proficiency field, including school catalogues and student records, it states.

Both policy documents add that SEVP may deny or withdraw a school’s certification if it fails to comply with the agency’s regulations or with its admissions policies stated on the Form I-17, or Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Student.

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