Government Must Certify School to Administer F-1 Program
Each college and university seeking government certification to enroll F-1 students undergoes a review process before certification. This review involves an official application (form I-17) and site visit by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The school must present documents establishing that it has a bona fide program and the necessary resources to administer the F-1 program on its campus. When choosing a school, prospective international students are encouraged to view the certification status, which is updated periodically and can be found on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website.
Students Must Look Beyond DHS / ICE Certification
The fact that a school has been certified to enroll international students in F-1 status is not, in itself, a guarantee of the legitimacy of the school and its full compliance with SEVIS and F-1 requirements. While the government should fully investigate and monitor schools prior to and following certification, this does not always occur. Thus, for the student’s own protection, s/he cannot solely rely upon the government’s approval of the school for participation in the F-1 program. Students have been forced to take some of this responsibility upon themselves when selecting a college or university to attend.
This uncertainty is especially important in the context of practical training programs. Even CPT and OPT programs approved by designated school officials (DSOs) can later be found by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to have been improperly authorized.
Accreditation is Important, but Not Sufficient
The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certifies some unaccredited colleges and universities. The fact that a school is allowed to participate in the F-1 student program does not mean that the school itself meets the academic standards set by the U.S. Department of Education for accreditation.
A list of accredited U.S. universitiescan be found at the Department of Education’s website. Please note, however, that just because a school is accredited does not mean that it is certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to admit F-1 students. Moreover, while virtually all prestigious schools are accredited, the mere fact that a school is accredited does not mean it is viewed favorably in immigration circles. In fact, in recent years, a number of the schools that ran afoul of immigration regulations were accredited.
Reputable Institutions Generally a Safer Bet
Many of the immigration-related concerns discussed here generally do not apply to those who will be attending well-established, fully accredited U.S. educational institutions. While rules for F-1 compliance apply to all participating schools, the risk of a raid on a university and potential disqualification from participating in the F-1 program is not a serious concern if one is attending a reputable educational institution.
Review School’s Written Materials on Website and Other Sources
While no single sign of a potential problem with administration of the SEVIS program is indicative or determinative of a certified school’s standing with regard to enrolling F-1 students, it is advisable to review the school’s website and other materials describing its history, academic programs, and instructions for international students. Warning signs can include poor grammar and misspellings in institutional literature and on the school website. This generally is not a good sign for any organization, but particularly for an educational institution. Schools with unprofessional materials and websites should be avoided.
Beware of Schools Offering CPT During First Year
One major factor that draws scrutiny from the USCIS is engaging in curricular practical training (CPT) during the first academic year of study. While this is not absolutely prohibited, there are restrictions regarding when it is appropriate for a school to override the general rule of CPT issuance, which is after the first academic year. If a school appears to be readily issuing CPT from the start of many or most of its academic programs, this is cause for concern.
Even more troubling, a policy change allows the USCIS to find status violations based on such issues and declare all of the time since the alleged violation to be unlawful presence.
Attendance at Physical Location Required
The use of online education is a growing trend, offered by many reputed schools. But, F-1 students typically are limited to one online course per academic term. Therefore, one should be wary of any school that seems primarily to offer “distance learning” opportunities.
If possible, a prospective international student should tour the respective college or university prior to selection. If this is not possible due to travel considerations, the foreign national may wish to contact any relatives, friends, or others in the United States for this in-person assessment.
School Must Have Legitimate Application Process for Admission
While some schools are more selective than others, if a school does not appear to have a true applicant screening process, this is reason for concern. If almost anyone is accepted quickly and at any time, the prospective student should exercise caution. There are some legitimate schools, of course, such as community colleges that are intended to serve the local community and provide opportunities for education to a broad spectrum of individuals. Some of the programs at these schools may be open to most candidates, but there is still an academic cycle and an application process. Questions regarding this type of school usually can be resolved by checking the accreditation.
This article is intended as a valuable resource to help readers in their understanding of the factors to be considered before enrolling at a U.S. university or other school. While there is no single recipe to ensure that a college or university has a strong academic and F-1 program, there are many signs that may hint at a school’s legitimacy.