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US: SEVP issues final guidance on pathway programs

Pathway programmes that prepare international students for degree-level study in the US must incorporate for-credit work and offer guaranteed entry to a degree, according to final guidance issued by the government branch responsible for overseeing international student visas and study programmes.

SEVP new guidance on pathway programmes and eligibility criteriaPhoto: Flickr/Isriya Paireepairit.

Existing pathway programmes have one year to comply with the guidance

In the long-awaited document, which builds on draft guidance issued more than two years ago, SEVP aims to clarify existing legislation concerning pathway programmes.

Pathway programmes must include credit-bearing coursework that counts towards a degree

For regulatory purposes, SEVP considers a pathway to be a language training programme, the guidance notes. Programmes must therefore be accredited by a relevant accrediting agency (usually ACCET or CEA).

Because of this classification, the guidance applies only to pathways that include an element of English language teaching.

The guidance stipulates that in order to issue Form I-20s – the certificate of eligibility international students need to obtain a study visa – pathway programmes must include credit-bearing coursework that counts towards an SEVP-accredited degree programme.

However, the document specifies that online or distance-learning classes taken as part of the pathway programme may not count towards a student’s final degree.

In addition, students are not eligible for practical training.

Pathways must also have “stated policies regarding normal academic progress and program completion”, the guidance adds.

And like all other study programmes offered by SEVP-certified education institutions, pathways must have stated admissions standards that students must meet before the school issues a Form I-20.

Per guidance issued earlier this year on I-20 issuance and English language proficiency, students must therefore meet all of a pathway programme’s English proficiency requirements before they can enrol.

Some adjustments have been made to the draft guidance on pathways issued in September 2014, based on sector feedback – specifically, to address the requirements for English language training and for-credit courses.

The final guidance also uses simplified terminology, referring only to pathway programmes rather than bridge programmes or bridge degrees.

“Once they have fully digested the new guidance, members can move forward with reinforcing changes they have made”

SEVP has also published an accompanying guide for institutions on how to gain accreditation to sponsor international students on pathway programmes and how to issue Form I-20s for these students.

Existing pathway programmes have one year to comply with the regulations, and the guidance applies with immediate effect for all pathways instigated after its publication.

Cheryl Delk Le Good, executive director of EnglishUSA, told The PIE News the association’s membership of intensive English programmes are in the process of digesting the information and putting together any questions they might have.

“EnglishUSA members have been awaiting this final guidance for quite a while, but are pleased that SEVP was able to provide it in the calendar year as has been announced at recent conferences,” she said.

“Once they have fully digested the new guidance, members can move forward with reinforcing changes they have made or were planning to make to their programmes.”

Along with the final guidance on pathways, SEVP has also issued interim final guidance on evidentiary requirements for vocational schools and private elementary and K-12 schools wishing to be certified by SEVP so they can enrol international students.

Representatives from SEVP discussed upcoming guidance at the NAFSA conference in Denver this year.

Representatives from SEVP discussed upcoming guidance at the NAFSA conference in Denver this year.

The guidance also lays out the evidentiary requirements for postsecondary schools that don’t meet the usual eligibility criteria for SEVP certification.

Ordinarily, certified schools must be either: degree-granting state institutions; degree granting and accredited by a nationally recognised body; or a secondary school that is operated by or as part of one of the former two types of postsecondary institution.

Evidentiary requirements for postsecondary schools include documentation demonstrating articulation agreements and state-issued professional licences obtained by graduates relating to their programme of study.

Vocational schools must also submit alumni’s professional licences as well as proof of employment to demonstrate that programmes achieve their aim of preparing graduates for the workforce.

And K-12 and elementary schools must submit detailed evidence showing students progress to the next grade level and are accepted to secondary schools.

SEVP is seeking comment from sector stakeholders on the guidance regarding evidentiary requirements until December 12.

In the meantime, the guidance is effective immediately for new programmes and after 60 days for currently certified schools.

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