INS policy on colleges yet to come
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
Though it's been almost a year since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there is still confusion, as well as concern, about how the country's institutions of higher education are going to track foreign students.
A tracking system by the Immigration and Naturalization Service was mandated by Congress since the discovery that two of the terrorists entered the country on student visas but were not attending classes.
At this point, all foreign student applicants to American schools will be screened by the government before schools can issue the I-20 form that enables the noncitizen to apply for a student visa.
But final specifications of exactly what INS wants won't be available for another couple of months, leaving schools expecting a scramble to meet completion dates.
"The drop-dead deadline is Jan. 30, 2003," said Martha Staff, international student adviser at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. "But there's a lot of speculation it will be pushed back because nobody believes the schools or the INS can do it by then."
For the schools, it means hours of extra data entry; additional costs for new software or computer systems; and the work of a multitude of people to coordinate and carry out the demands of feeding a national computerized database that can closely monitor foreign students.
Brigham Young University-Hawai'i is planning on spending an additional $17,000 on a software system that would "talk" to the new SEVIS Student and Exchange Visitor Information System but the school doesn't know if more will be needed for additional computers and software in the fall.
"What we have to do to accommodate this remains to be seen," said Nancy Ellis, Hawai'i Pacific University vice president and dean of the Student Support Center.
"Whatever it is, we're going to handle it. We've been having weekly staff meetings to find out how this new system will affect workflow."
In all, there are approximately 5,400 foreign students studying at about 70 Hawai'i schools. But UH, HPU and BYUH have most of them, with more than 1,500 registered last year at the Manoa campus alone, another 1,800 at HPU and about 1,000 at BYUH.
While all of the schools have been working closely with the INS on the new tracking protocol, there are still more questions than answers.
"There's a lot that we don't know yet," said Linda Duckworth, director of international student services at UH.
"I knew all along this was preparing higher education institutions to start thinking about changing how we do business.
"So, while we're waiting for final regulations, we've formed a systemwide SEVIS steering committee and three subcommittees: the SEVIS student committee, SEVIS scholar committee (there are around 400 foreign scholars at UH) and a SEVIS IT (Information Technology) committee."
The final specifications from INS for data entry will have a great deal to do with how difficult it will be for schools to comply.
Both HPU and BYUH are pushing ahead with early certification in the system, even before final specifications are complete.
Charles Goo, associate dean of students and director of international student services for BYUH, said the school has submitted forms for preliminary certification and is awaiting approval from the INS office in Hawai'i.
"We want to input the data for now (in real time) just as a practice," said Goo. "Later on we want to move to 'batch' (entry)."
At this point the choices are a "batch" entry system which the larger schools prefer, and a "real time" entry system which is possible now, but easier for smaller schools with fewer foreign students.
The former will allow just that a large amount of data that includes many students already in the system to be transferred at once.
The latter would require single entry for each student and single transfer, taking more time.
The logistics at UH, in particular, are complicated by the decentralized collection of data on students and the systemwide changeover to the new $20 million SCT-Banner student information computer system that will link all campuses, allow online registration and provide for easy transfer between schools.
"One of our issues is doing double entry of the same data," said Duckworth. But the technology group is looking into whether Banner can solve that problem.
But there are further complications for UH. While the SEC-Banner company is developing a software product to talk to SEVIS, the Manoa campus won't be on Banner until spring months after the INS deadline.
At this point INS is not asking schools to have all foreign students in the system immediately but will allow some time for that to happen.
With more than 30,000 colleges across the country in the same boat, there is intense interest nationally in how best to comply. At the recent Mainland conference of the National Association for International Educators, there was interest in a data-management system that offered "alerts" for both the student and the international student office if a visa were about to expire.
"This would be an internal alert and would hopefully help keep our students in status," said Duckworth.
The new system is going to be highly unforgiving of human lapses.
"They have said they will no longer consider inadvertence 'Oh, I forgot' (as an excuse)," said Duckworth.
"To me, what that means is we have to review how we do business and set in place these 'alerts.' "
The proposed regulations will also remove the year's grace period that foreign students were traditionally given to complete degrees.
"For a bachelor's degree that would take four years; we were adding one year," said Duckworth. "Now with the proposed regulations, they're taking away the grace period. We'll have to rethink the length of our programs."
Reach Beverly Creamer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8013.