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Courtney M. Yount McGinnis, University of Delaware

Courtney Yount McGinnis.jpgIn the 2008-2009 school year, the number of international students attending U.S. institutions for the first time increased by 15.8%.  671,616 international students were enrolled, representing 3.7% of all undergraduate students throughout the country (Open Doors 2009 Fast Facts). For many advisors, the increased international presence on campuses is both exciting and challenging as they adjust to meeting the needs of an entirely different population of students; a population that, while linked, has immensely different backgrounds and traditions.  Good advising for international students is crucial and is often handled by academic advisors who may or may not be trained in meeting the unique hurdles these students face.  This article focuses on the impact of visa status on academic choices available to international students enrolled in U.S. institutions.

Many academic advisors face a steep learning curve as they begin to experience an increase in international student advisees. Training in immigration law and student visa status is not a standard for academic advisors.  However, it is important when meeting with these students that advisors understand how the student entered the country and what the student must do in order to stay.  This information is extremely relevant as some of the academic options available to traditional students may not be available for international students due to immigration law.  Furthermore, many of these students may have little knowledge of the regulations they must follow.

Most international undergraduate students will enter the United States with an F-1 visa status unless they are participating in an exchange program.  An F-1 visa is issued to students enrolling full-time in programs that result in a degree, diploma, or certificate at an accredited institution.  In the higher education setting, these programs typically include full-time matriculated study in a degree program as well as English as a Second Language programs that are offered on many campuses.  To obtain an F-1 visa, students must provide proof that they maintain residence abroad which they have no intention of giving up and must have sufficient funds available for self-support during the entire proposed course of study (Students and Exchange Visitors).

For many international students, maintaining the required full-time status becomes more difficult than originally thought.  With traditional students, a variety of academic options may be available, depending on institutional policies.  For instance, a student might be able to take a course as an auditor or withdraw from a course at a certain point in the semester if they are doing poorly.  For international students, choosing one of these options could affect their visa status and result in an immigration violation.  Once the student has violated their visa status, they are considered to be in the U.S. illegally.  Students who are deemed to be in the U.S. illegally for 180 days cannot return to the U.S. for at least three years.  If they remain in illegal status for one year or more, the bar for reentry is ten years (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, 1996).  International students facing poor grades in a subject can be caught between a rock and a hard place as they decide between accepting the poor grade and violating their visa status.

If an undergraduate international student is enrolled in only 12-14 credits and wishes to change to an auditor or withdraw from a course (dropping them below 12 credits), they would be in violation of their immigration status.  There are some circumstances, though, in which a student might be able to drop below the 12 credits, such as academic difficulty, medical or psychological conditions, or needing fewer  than 12 credits to finish a degree.  Academic difficulties typically include initial difficulty with the English language, initial difficulty with reading requirements, difficulty adjusting to the American educational system or improper course level placement (Immigration and Nationality Act, 1952).  In these situations, students should connect with the Designated School Official [the person authorized to maintain the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)] on campus who certifies their visa status, as additional paperwork would need to be completed for their files.

Notice that there is no category of financial circumstances in which a student might be able to drop below the 12-credit limit. International students are not eligible for any federal financial aid.  In fact, each student must provide proof of sufficient funds available for self-support throughout their proposed course of study when applying for their visa at their local consulate (Students and Exchange Visitors). In addition, universities will likely require the student to submit a letter or form that lists all sources of funding and when the funding will be available.  The letter or form will identify a sponsor who provides documentation of financial support. Despite this, many international students are surprised to find that their parent or sponsor cannot or will not pay once they have arrived.  While a student who enters the country on an F-1 visa is eligible to work on campus up to 20 hours per week beginning in the first year, the position cannot be funded through federal work-study funds, limiting positions that are available (Financial Aid For Undergraduate Services).

In order to encourage academic success, it is important for all advisors who meet with international students to fully understand the unique rules and regulations facing this population.  Advising offices might want to consider providing students with copies of the federal regulations if they are not provided elsewhere on campus.  It is vital to encourage international students to take an appropriate number of credits and to help them understand the importance of a balanced schedule.   International students should fully understand their visa status and what a course of full-time study means at the undergraduate level in the United States.  Resources providing training about visas and immigration status are available to both students and professionals in a variety of places online.  Check out the NACADA ESL/International Student Advising Commission website for additional resources and topics affecting international students.

Courtney M. Yount McGinnis
Assistant Director
Grants & Special Programs
International Student Advisor
University Studies Program
University of Delaware


Financial Aid For Undergraduate Services. (2008, 2 June). Retrieved from NAFSA: www.nafsa.org/students.sec/financial_aid_for_undergraduate/

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. (1996). 8 U.S.C. 1182, INA § 212(a)(9)(B).

Immigration and Nationality Act. (1952). 8 C.F.R. 214.2(f)(9)(ii)(D).

Open Doors 2009 Fast Facts. (2008, July 10). Retrieved from Institute of International Education: www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors 

Students and Exchange Visitors. (2008, August 22). Retrieved from US Citizenship & Immigration Services: www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis

Cite this article using APA style as: Yount McGinnis, C.M. (2010, September). Visa status and its effect on international student academic success. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


# Adam
Friday, January 3, 2014 3:40 AM
Its good and I think this may have been a positive step for new students to migrate.
Adam @ http://www.joeygilbertlaw.com/
# lisa
Thursday, December 10, 2015 1:01 AM
Hi there, its pleasant article Lots of useful information here.

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