Regulatory Concerns Regarding Enrollment
Enrolling international students at The Pennsylvania State University is a complicated business which involves a University academic area, the Directorate of International Student Advising (DISA) unit of the University Office of Global Programs, and as many as three or four U.S. Government Agencies. Although formal PSU exchange programs are conducted under the auspices of a contract and cleared by the Office of Risk Management (almost all of these are administered by the Education Abroad), informal agreements made by various departments and PSU campuses have proliferated in recent years. The considerations necessary for the enrollment of international students are many and should be understood by anyone entering into discussions which might result in educational "exchange". This handout is prepared as a rough set of guidelines for those who may not be familiar with the many implications of these activities.
The Pennsylvania State University is authorized to issue eligibility documents to bring international students to study in the U.S. under two separate visas: the F-1 (student) visa is controlled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and is obtained with the I-20 visa eligibility form and the J-1 (Exchange Visitor) visa is controlled by the U.S. Department of State (DOS) and requires the DS-2019 visa eligibility form. Specific DISA staff are designated by name to sign these documents on behalf of the University by Penn State's President. Only these signatures are recognized by the State Department officials in U.S. missions abroad, where students present the I-20 or DS-2019 to obtain the visa for entry into the U.S., and by the DHS here in the U.S.
DISA is required by law to ascertain and to certify several matters before the visa eligibility document can be issued. Although there are differences between the F-1 and J-1 visa, they are slight and, for our purposes here, the two will be discussed together. In order to be eligible for a visa document DISA must certify the following:
- That students meet the same academic criteria for admission as American students who are admitted.
- That students possess sufficient English skills to study.
- That students will pursue an identifiable, approved academic program.
- That students will pursue this program on a full-time basis.
- That students have sufficient funds to provide for their educational and living expenses and those of any accompanying dependents "without resorting to unauthorized employment or becoming a public charge."
The last requirement, that of financial support, is by far the most difficult to establish and the one which provides the greatest impediment to potential educational exchange. For a complete breakdown of these expenses please see Financial Requirements.
Admissions and Timetables
Students may be admitted as undergraduates, graduate students, or professional students or as non-degree students. In most cases, students on exchanges of one or two semesters duration are enrolled in non-degree status. Please see Non-Degree Students for more information.
Admitting international students is a time-consuming process. Those seeking degree candidacy must go through the regular admissions process just as do domestic students, with the additional requirement to submit evidence of English proficiency as required by the appropriate Admissions office.
After an admission offer has been made, DISA contacts the student to encourage them to formally accept their offer of admission. After DISA is notified that the student has done this (PDACC status if undergraduate and GRFOA status if graduate student), DISA will contact the student once again to to gather any required materials regarding issuance of visa eligibility documentation (I-20/DS-2019). These materials may include an Application for Visa Document, Financial Guarantee and copies of current immigration documents. Once all those materials have been received, DISA begins the review process for issuance of the visa document. Once the visa document is received by the student, the process of obtaining the visa from the U.S. mission begins -- this process can take months depending on the country of origin.
In all cases, therefore, Penn State faculty and staff are urged to allow sufficient time to complete this process. A minimum of three months from submission of a complete application is recommended.
Program And Credit Concerns
As mentioned above, students must be coming to the United States in order to pursue full-time an approved and recognized academic program. While it is possible to establish "ad hoc", non-degree programs for purposes of maintaining a particular exchange agreement, these ad hoc programs must, in themselves, have some structure. For example, a typical exchange program might call for a student to attend Penn State for one year to study architectural engineering in a non-degree status in order to enhance the curriculum being offered in his/her home country. The goals of this enhancement should be clear and some structure as to what the student will pursue while here must be established. Likewise, definition of a full-time load may be somewhat flexible but the requirement itself is not negotiable. Students on either visa must be pursuing their academic program on a full-time basis in order legally to be in the country on a student visa. While this full-time pursuit may not always translate into credit hours, it usually does. Therefore, tuition costs must always be a major consideration when deciding to bring students.
There is little financial aid available at The Pennsylvania State University for international students. A very significant proportion (over 35%) of international students studying at Penn State do so with primary support from a graduate assistantship. Other students rely on funding from their own savings, from their families or, in many cases, from some outside sponsor. There is virtually no financial aid for international undergraduate students.
Employment for international students is highly restricted and can never be used in meeting the financial guarantee.
Penn State is not an inexpensive institution and even those students with full financial support, such as those with a graduate assistantship, are funded sufficiently to support themselves only. Dependents of international students are, in almost all cases, not authorized to work. Even if they could work, projected employment income cannot be used to establish the financial wherewithal necessary to receive a visa document. Those international students who are considering bringing dependents must have considerable additional resources available to them. This consideration has become even more significant since 1990, when Penn State made health insurance mandatory for all international students and accompanying dependents (this requirement is now required by law for all those on J-1 visas). Health insurance for spouses and children, alone represents a considerable financial commitment.
Accommodation for international students is a major issue, particularly at locations other than University Park. Most internationals are unfamiliar with U.S. practices of locating and securing rental dwellings, with leases and with other such matters. Transportation is also usually an issue. Most international students prefer to live on campus, at least initially. When residence hall space is not available, extra care must be given to assist students in finding housing which is suitable and affordable.
Most international students are largely unfamiliar with American society and culture and with the resources of the community. Consequently, they need assistance with matters ranging from where to shop for appropriate foods to how to ship things home. This support is offered in a systematic and programmatic way at University Park, especially if students arrive in time for UOGP's New International Student Orientation. In recent years other locations have begun to provide support for international students. It is suggested that a "mentor" be appointed for all international students enrolling at these locations in order to provide the one-on-one support needed in order to adjust appropriately. Anyone who has lived, worked or studied abroad will instantly recognize the value and necessity of this kind of support.
Questions and Concerns
Questions or concerns related to these matters should be addressed to Directorate of International Student Advising (DISA) at 865-6348, 410 Boucke Building or to DISA-Adviser@ip.psu.edu.