A newly added visa compliance fee of $700 has stirred up a debate between the University of Connecticut and its international graduate students.
At the start of fall 2017, the visa compliance fee for international students who are under an F-1 or J-1 visa was implemented by the Bursar’s Office, according to the International Student & Scholar Services.
Last year, the federal government passed a law mandating that there will be a certain number of visa compliance officers per a certain number of international students. UConn was not in compliance with the law and decided to create the visa compliance fee to found new employees, said Undergraduate Student Government (USG) president Irma Valverde.
The ideal ratio of international students and scholars for compliance is one employee for every 200 students. At UConn, the ratio is one to 326, according to UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz.
The international student population has more than doubled in the last few years, and UConn’s work to assist those students has increased as well, Reitz said in an email. The international student and scholar population has increased by 2,525 from 2006 to 2017, according to a chart from Reitz.
Some students said UConn’s explanation for the fee lacked transparency. A graduate student senator as well as international graduate student said that there are students other than undergraduates or graduates, such as those enrolled in UConn American English Language Institute, who should pay the fee as well.
Reitz said that the fee is assessed to international students who enrolled for at least one semester in a degree or non-degree program, including the Institute.
Reitz added that the term “international student” means a student who is in the United States from another country to complete an educational program at UConn and who has obtained the necessary paperwork from UConn to study here.
The graduate student senator said that last semester, the Graduate Student Senate (GSS) had two meetings with Chief Financial Officer Scott Jordan in advance of the fee approval. Jordan told them that the fee would be used for English training support, international student support training and programming, the First Year Experience, the cultural centers and enrollment management, according to the minutes of the meeting.
The GSS senator said that senators questioned these items and found them illogical—English support training, international support training and programming and FYE refer to an academic requirement rather than a visa compliance requirement. The cultural centers are open to all students, so it is unfair to only charge international students, the GSS senator said.
“As soon as we hear ‘visa,’ we freak out because we know that our status can be compromised and our ability to fulfill our degrees can be suddenly stopped if we don’t conform to the visa requirement,” the GSS senator said. “The title they are labeling ‘visa compliance’ is very scary, very threatening and very convincing. But then if you start looking at the items included, those have nothing to do with the visa compliance fee.”
Rae Alexander, director of the International Students office, said that after obtaining feedback from students regarding the fee, the university decided not to support programs mentioned above. Instead, the money will be used for maintaining international students’ visas, immigration records, assessing and processing their applications for immigration benefits, her office’s website said.
The GSS senator said the visa compliance fee is too high compared to other universities. Of 12 universities similar to UConn, only four charge a visa compliance fee. Northeastern University has the highest fee applicable to students, which is $250. However, it is a one-time fee and only be paid in the first semester, the GSS senator said. In contrast, UConn’s fee is $700 per year.
“The only item to justify the existence of the visa compliance fee is to recruit more people for the international student scholar services,” the GSS senator said. “And if that is [the] case, paying an extra person no more than $100 maximum per year is enough. So what are you gonna do with the other million dollars they have accumulated?”
Reitz said the university reviewed similar universities before proposing the fee, and it ranges from $75 to $966 per semester at the other universities.
The international graduate students stopped focusing on the fee this semester because fees for graduate assistants and teaching assistants—a large proportion of international graduate students—were waived at the beginning of the semester through the collective bargaining process by the UConn Graduate Employee Union and the university. The GSS senator said the fee does not seem necessary if it could be waived.
Gayatri Phadke, the union representative, said the union didn’t discuss the rationality of the fee. The conversation only focused on the contract, which regulates that the university has to negotiate with the union before implementing any change if it is going to affect members.
The international undergraduate students said they were not informed as they should be before the fee was implemented. Some said they don’t feel valued equally by the university.
Saifei Xi, 21, a junior who is a Pan Asian Council representative of the Chinese Students & Scholars Association, expressed her frustration.
“This fee is absolutely unacceptable as it was never brought up to people who will be affected by it. Our voices were not heard in this case,” Xi said.
Not being informed by either Global Affairs office or USG before the fee was officially posted, international undergraduate students are seeking for explanations from both sides.
Phadke said that before the fee actually was applied, they had gone to the USG session and it seemed that students were ambivalent about it.
Countering Phadke, Valverde said that USG couldn’t control things federally.
“If the federal government asks them to have a certain amount of compliance officers to international students, people couldn’t get rid of it, and because the university didn’t have enough budget to get more compliance officers, the fee eventually got put into effect,” Valverde said.
Valverde added that the Global Affairs office should have informed international students about the fee and the Global Affairs office made mistakes when explaining the fee because it is new.
Xi said that international students who are not UConn employees are vulnerable.
“If this is only [geared] toward international students, why were graduate assistants not charged? Because they are protected by the union while undergraduate students are not,” Xi said. “What makes UConn only charge unprotected groups then?”
Phadke said that it would be helpful to have more international students involved with student government. There should also be a student advising group that works with the Global Affairs office, Phadke said.
“One of the things I’ve realized was, there are people in the university who don’t even understand what it’s like to be an international student, so unless we work together and have a stronger voice in the university, they will not consider the aspect of how it will affect the international students,” Phadke said. “Unless you try, nothing is going to happen.”
Yuanyuan Cao is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.