US International Higher Education

How recent actions by DHS & State impact international admissions offices

Each summer as one academic year ends and another looms on the horizon, international educators catch their collective breath and assess any changes needed to their plans. This year is no exception. With the two major government bodies overseeing visa and immigration policies planting very firm markers related to social media accounts, SEVIS fees, and I-20 issuance, the U.S. Department of State and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.

While at least two of these three actions asking for social media account information and SEVIS fee increases leave many in the field frustrated, “great, more reasons to put students off coming here,” it is our new reality for the immediate future. So, how do these changes impact what your institution does, and how you communicate with your prospective international student audiences?

Social media question for visa applicants

Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last two months, you’ve likely heard that since the end of May, all applicants for non-immigrant visas to the United States must now provide social media account information for the last five years as part of the DS-160 online form. In essence, much like applicants have had to provide addresses, telephone numbers, and travel history for the last five years as part of this visa application process for quite some time, the addition of this kind of question is now, on face-value, being added to catch up with the times and to provide an extra layer of security in the process.

While the privacy issues involved are being hotly debated, in this digital age coupled with global war on terror, the reality is this question is here to stay. There is a useful NAFSA brief on the social media question that is worth a read. As far as what is advisable to send to your incoming students who have been issued initial I-20s, it may well be useful to send them a link to the U.S. Department of State FAQ on the addition of the question about social media accounts.

Initial I-20s: To whom do you send?

On June 4th, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent a memo addressing to whom initial I-20s should be sent. The bulk of this memo centers around how “recruiters” have no role in handling the I-20, and that only DSOs (Designated School Officials) can send signed I-20s and should send them only to the student (or his/her parents or guardian if a minor).  Part of the challenge here is the use of the term “recruiters” as many international admissions offices call their traveling staff, employed by the university as recruiters. For all-in-one international offices, recruiters can also be DSOs. I’ve done both roles at all of the institutions I have worked.

ICE’s reference to recruiters focuses on agents or third-party recruiters, not college or university staff. So with that clarification in mind, how does this affect your operations? Hopefully, not at all, as most institutions realize putting I-20s directly in the hands of agents is generally not in anyone’s best interest. Certainly, ICE mentions in its memo that security, privacy, and fraud protection are the chief reasons for i-20s to only be sent to students or parents/guardians. A recent PIE News story shares some useful perspectives on this memo, most notably from an Indian educational agency that agrees with the U.S. government in principle.

Increased SEVIS fees – explaining the costs

While this fee increase has been coming for over a year, whenever fees that prospective international students at any point in the college admissions process increase, there is typically a public outcry, most notably from international admissions professionals. DHS addressed on their site the new SEVIS fees that took effect on June 24. The previous $200 SEVIS fee paid online after students received their initial I-20s had remained the same since 2008. As SEVP and the SEVIS database is completely fee-funded, the reality is the SEVIS fee was due for an increase.

With the SEVIS fee now at $350, this fairly hefty increase coupled with the standard DS-160 (non-immigrant visa application fee) of $160 puts the combined US visa process fees at $510. For comparison purposes, the US fees are now higher than all the other major English-speaking destination countries (in US dollar equivalent amounts): Australia $414, UK $401, New Zealand $182, and Canada $115 fee. Is the extra $150 going to push a student away from the U.S., probably not, but it’s a potential further irritation that U.S. institutions need to be aware of in communications with prospective international student audiences. Also, make sure, if your institutional site mentions SEVIS fee amounts that you make the necessary changes to be as transparent with your students as possible.

In the end, change is the only constant in international education and as such, we need to be equipped to respond as quickly as possible when these curveballs are thrown at us, if not before they happen so that we are prepared for what’s to come.

To discuss and review your international recruitment strategy, contact us.

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