Intensive English Programs and the SEVIS Fee Increase

 SEVP recently announced an increase in the SEVIS fee from $200 to $350, a 75% increase. All international students who wish to study in the U.S. in F-1 status must pay the SEVIS fee (in addition to any additional in-country visa application fees), and are not eligible for a refund if they are denied an F-1 visa. The SEVIS system was an unfunded mandate introduced to keep track of international students following 9-11. It is entirely funded by its users: the students and the institutions they study at.

But not all users are equal. In particular, students wishing to study in short-term programs at intensive English programs (IEPs) are disproportionately burdened by the SEVIS fee, compared with those who come to study for a bachelor’s or master’s degree. $350 is a large chunk of the outlay of an IEP student in a short-term program. Doubtless the fee increase will deter many students from choosing the U.S. as a destination for study in an IEP, and U.S. IEPs stand to lose significant business.

A comment campaign organized by EnglishUSA made clear the unfair burden on IEP students, but it fell on deaf ears at SEVP, which went ahead with the fee increase for all students. IEPs will be responding by sidestepping the SEVIS system entirely. Already many IEPs offer part-time (such as 15 hours per week) programs, with students entering the U.S. on the Visa Waiver Program or on a B visa. Rather than a workaround, this approach will increasingly come to be seen as business as usual.

Although some IEP administrators or designated school officials at universities may be reluctant to admit students for part-time students, it is acceptable to do so. An ESL program of less than 18 hours per week is, by the Department of Homeland Security’s own definition, not a full course of study, and individuals in such programs are not eligible for an F-1 visa. F-1 status is a privilege: it allows individuals who have demonstrated academic accomplishment and financial means the possibility to remain in the U.S. for as long as they remain in a full-time course of study at a recognized institution. People coming for part-time ESL do not seek that privilege, are not eligible for it, and should not apply for an F-1 visa.

I recommend that IEPs refer to the people who come to part-time programs as program participants, not as students. This will avoid any confusion as to the correct visa status for them (that is, they are not F-1 students). And please keep in mind that there is nothing illegal or dangerous about sitting in a room talking about English grammar, whether you are a U.S. citizen or not. U.S. IEPs offer valuable opportunities for people around the world, and should use the means available to them to continue to do so.