Trending Issue: F-1 Conditional Admission and Pathway Programs

October 04, 2017

 

This NAFSA Trending Issue Brief describes the regulatory and policy factors that schools should consider when discussing the topic of conditional admission and pathway programs for F-1 students.

In the end, the question is a practical one: "how should a school issue an I-20 to a student who has met all requirements for regular admission except for English language proficiency?" The answer raises another practical question, "how should a school's Form I-17 be amended to support the issuance of these I-20s?"

At issue is not whether conditional admission or pathway programs can exist as an academic matter, but rather how a school should update its Form I-17 and issue Form I-20. Based on Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) policy guidance, the short answer is that a school should issue a Form I-20 only for a program:

  • that constitutes a full course of study;
  • that is approved on the school's Form I-17; and
  • to which the student has been unconditionally admitted by an admissions official who has determined that the student's qualifications meet all requirements for admission to that program of study, including the program's minimum English language proficiency requirements.

Recent Updates

  • On December 14, 2016, SEVP conducted an "InFocus Webinar" that addressed in part Policy Guidance S7.2. You can download the webinar script and a set of pre-submitted questions with responses from SEVP.
  • On October 28, 2016, SEVP issued final policy guidance on "Pathway Programs for Reasons of English Proficiency." See SEVP Policy Guidance S7.2. The guidance also includes a fact sheet [SEVP Fact Sheet FS S72.1] that explains how SEVP wants schools to describe pathway programs on their Form I-17, and how to complete a Form I-20 for students pursuing such programs. The guidance is effective on the date of publication (October 28, 2016) "for all (ESL) pathway programs started on or after that date." For programs that had already begun before October 28, 2016, schools will have one year, until October 28, 2017, to bring such programs into compliance with the new policy. The final guidance addresses only pathways programs for reasons of English proficiency.
  • On July 13, 2016, SEVP posted two final guidance documents for adjudicators on the topics of Conditional Admission and the use of the English Proficiency Field on Form I-20.  

The Issue

DHS regulations at 8 CFR 214.3(k) establish the conditions that must be met before a school's Designated School Official (DSO) can issue a Form I-20, which is the "certificate of eligibility" a student uses to acquire F-1 nonimmigrant student status. Schools produce Form I-20 within the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), and the data collected in the preparation and maintenance of a student's SEVIS record is the principal way that DHS implements the monitoring and reporting requirements of Section 641 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) as amended.

Many schools offer "conditional admission" to international students who have met all academic standards for admission to an academic program, but who do not meet the school's minimum English language requirements. Conditional admission policies vary by institution, but in most cases the offer of full admission to the academic program is contingent upon the student enrolling in intensive English language coursework to improve the level of the student's English, before the "condition" on the admission is removed and the student can matriculate as a regularly admitted student. A related topic is the existence of "bridge" or "pathway" programs that allow a student who has not met all of a school's requirements for admission to a full degree program to "bridge" that gap in a program of study consisting of coursework or preparation in the area where prerequisites must be supplemented (often English language), while simultaneously taking academic coursework that will eventually be applied towards satisfying degree requirements once the student has been fully accepted into the degree program.

In late 2012 the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) began to address some schools' practice of issuing a single Form I-20 that covered both the English language and the academic degree portions of a student's educational objective, in cases where the student had only been conditionally admitted to the academic program because of English language issues. SEVP's focus was on 8 CFR 214.3(k)(3), which requires that,

"The appropriate school authority has determined that the prospective student's qualifications meet all standards for admission."

While the provisions governing issuance of Form I-20 are not new (they have been in place since 1983), SEVP was concerned about whether this practice was in compliance with 8 CFR 214.3(k)(3), because "conditional" admission is generally offered only when a prospective student has not met all standards for admission to a program. Aside from the regulatory issue, SEVP was also concerned that Forms I-20 should reflect the actual program of study in which the student is engaged, for tracking, reporting, and monitoring purposes, as well as to clarify when a student becomes eligible for practical training benefits, since intensive English language students are not eligible for practical training.

At issue is not whether conditional admission or pathway programs can exist as an academic matter, but rather how a school should update its Form I-17 and issue Form I-20. Based on SEVP policy guidance, the short answer is that a school should issue a Form I-20 only for a program:

  • that constitutes a full course of study;
  • that is approved on the school's Form I-17; and
  • to which the student has been unconditionally admitted by an admissions official who has determined that the student's qualifications meet all requirements for admission to that program of study, including the program's minimum English language proficiency requirements.

Latest SEVP Policy Guidance Documents

SEVP's latest final policy guidance on this topic includes:

  • On July 13, 2016, SEVP issued SEVP Policy Guidance S13.1: Conditional Admission, which finalizes SEVP's draft policy guidance originally published on July 11, 2014.
    • The final guidance confirms that "SEVP regulation prohibits the issuance of a Form I-20 based on conditional admission. DSOs can only issue a Form I-20 when students have met all standards for admission for the program of study listed on the Form I-20. These standards for admission include any English proficiency requirements."
    • Remember that there is a difference between conditional admission as an academic policy v. issuing an I-20 based on a conditional admission. The issue is not conditional admission itself. Under the final guidance, a school can still decide to admit students conditionally, if such a practice is consistent with its accreditation, but it cannot use the program to which the student has only been conditionally admitted as the program of study for which the I-20 is issued. If the student has also been fully admitted to another program approved on the school's I-17 (e.g., ESL), the school can still issue the I-20 for the ESL program, and note in the Remarks that the student has been conditionally admitted to another program of study that will follow the one to which the student has been fully admitted. For example, if the student has been conditionally admitted to a B.S. in Chemistry but fully admitted to an ESL program, the school can issue the I-20 for the ESL program (provided the ESL program has been approved on the school's Form I-17), and note in the Remarks that the student has also been conditionally admitted to the B.S. in Chemistry.
     
  • On July 13, 2016, SEVP issued SEVP Policy Guidance S13.1.2: English Proficiency Field, which finalizes SEVP's draft policy guidance originally published on July 25, 2014. It covers three scenarios in the context of the Form I-20 English Proficiency fields:
    • Scenario 1 - Student meets the required English proficiency standard for admission to the program of study for which the DSO is issuing the Form I-20
    • Scenario 2 - School does not require English proficiency as a standard for admission to the program of study for which the DSO is issuing the Form I-20, and the school explains why the program does not require English proficiency (e.g. it is an Intensive English Language program)
    • Scenario 3 - SEVIS will not allow a DSO to indicate that the school requires English proficiency but that the student does not have it. This is labeled an "Improper Form I-20 English proficiency field scenario" in the final guidance.
     
  • On October 28, 2016, SEVP issued SEVP Policy Guidance S7.2: Pathway Programs for Reasons of English Proficiency and accompanying SEVP Fact Sheet FS S72.1, which explain how SEVP wants schools to describe pathway programs on their Form I-17, and how to complete a Form I-20 for students pursuing such programs. The guidance is effective on the date of publication (October 28, 2016) "for all (ESL) pathway programs started on or after that date." For programs that had already begun before October 28, 2016, schools will have one year, until October 28, 2017, to bring such programs into compliance with the new policy. SEVP Policy Guidance S7.2 addresses only pathways programs for reasons of English proficiency. SEVP clearly states that the Policy Guidance does not address the following topics:
    • Pathway programs unrelated to English proficiency
    • Reduced course load for academic difficulties
    • Concurrent enrollment
    • Developmental English as a Second Language (ESL) coursework during a student's orientation period
     
  • On December 14, 2016, SEVP conducted an "InFocus Webinar" that addressed in part Policy Guidance S7.2. Available for download are:  

Business process considerations

Both for purposes of commenting on draft guidance as well as business planning, schools should asses how SEVP guidance will impact school processes. Schools may wish to consider the following:

  • Articulating how their I-20 issuance practices comply with the 214.3(k)(3) "all standards for admission" requirement.
  • How would SEVP's final or draft policy impact their business processes? For example,
    • What would the impact be of having to issue two successive I-20s to implement a conditional admission or pathway program?
    • How long would it take to get a Form I-17 update approved by SEVP for a pathway program where both the English language and academic program?
    • How would the final or draft policy impact business agreements or contracts of colleges or universities where not all of the instruction is provided directly by the college or university (that is, where a third party is involved in providing instruction or program management)?
     

History of SEVP draft guidance