North America

SEVP Final Guidance: Conditional Admissions

After two years of discussion (and anxiety!) over the fate of an institution’s ability to issue conditional offers of admission to international students, on July 13, 2016, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has issued its final guidance on Conditional Admission.

After two years of discussion (and anxiety!) over the fate of an institution’s ability to issue conditional offers of admission to international students, on July 13, 2016, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has issued its final guidance on Conditional Admission.


Download PDF doc of SEVP Final guidance on Conditional Admission

What was the decision?

This guidance served several purposes:

  1. To clarify the definition of conditional admission;
  2. To define what is meant by “standards of admission”;
  3. To confirm that schools are not permitted to issue I-20 forms for conditional admission to academic programs;
  4. To remind DSOs that they must truthfully indicate whether the student has met English proficiency requirements for admission on the I-20 Form;
  5. To remind DSOs of their recordkeeping and reporting requirements, as well as the adverse action that can result in the event of a DSO’s failure to meet the requirements of their position.


SEVP guidance

This guidance is written in legalese. What does it mean?

Fundamentally, this guidance means that institutions are no longer permitted to issue I-20 Forms with a “program level” of “undergraduate” or “graduate” studies for students who have not yet met English proficiency requirements because, technically, the law requires students to have met ALL conditions of admission prior to the issuance of an I-20 Form.

Instead of a degree-level I-20 Form, institutions can issue an I-20 showing that the conditionally-admitted student’s program level is for language training; once the student has completed his/her ESL requirements, the institution can then issue a new I-20 indicating the change of program level to undergraduate or graduate studies.

Does this work?

This has actually been the practice of my university for approximately 9-10 years. We issue a language training I-20 Form for conditionally admitted students that A) shows that they have not met English proficiency requirements because a minimum English level is not required for entry into our language program; and B) it contains a remark in Section 9 that indicates that the student will begin university study upon completion of our English program.

To support the issuance of the I-20 Form, the student is also provided with two acceptance letters: one from their future degree program (indicating that they are conditionally admitted) and one from the ESL program, which details their start date and program information.

We have had great success (in terms of successful F-1 visa issuance, clarity of documents to students and consular officers, etc.) with this method for many years.


Though officials at academic institutions and ESL centers have been aware that guidance with these particular conditions would likely be released this year, it is still causing a great deal of consternation in the field. Many questions are arising on forums and list serves across the industry, including the ones that are listed below.

1. Are graduate programs no longer able to issue a conditional admission to students who meet English proficiency requirements but who still need to produce an adequate GRE or GMAT score sometime during the first semester of study?

It would seem that this is the case, unless the school either has a full-time preparation program for these exams (and can admit the student into that program on the I-20 Form).

Another option (though fraught with issues) is for department faculty and administrators to either re-evaluate their test score requirements or change their status from “required” to “recommended.”

Of course, the final option would be for the school to stop issuing the conditional admission, entirely. All students would be required to submit adequate GRE or GMAT scores (or similar) prior to admission.

2. Similarly to the first question, how will schools with non-ESL intensive programs (e.g., math, science, etc.) be able to meet this requirement if they conditionally admit students and require them to participate in these types of programs?

I think the answer to this is the same as the above. Schools will have to either reconsider their admissions requirements, stop issuing conditional admissions, or they will need to create a full-time program that focuses on the non-ESL preparation which would still qualify them to issue I-20 Forms and admit international students.

3. What will happen with institutions who do not have “language training” listed as an option on their I-20 forms?

This includes those who do not have an IEP at their institution and are partnering with other IEPs to provide the Academic English preparation for their conditionally-admitted students, as well as those institutions who have ESL programs that are not yet accredited and therefore issue degree-level I-20 forms for these students.

The reality is that the schools that have ESL programs will need to get them listed on their I-17 and approved by SEVP as soon as possible. This is easier said than done, however.

First, ESL programs must be accredited. If the IEP is at a regionally-accredited university or college, then it falls under the umbrella of the institution’s accreditation and is eligible to admit international students.

However, in the case where students take ESL courses with a private company that has a pathways program or partnership with the university, but for whom the university issues a degree-level I-20 Form, this becomes more problematic. It would seem that a consequence of this ruling is that the ESL program would need to be accredited by CEA or ACCET and certified by SEVP.

What’s next?

At this point, there are a variety of reactions to this guidance across the industry.

Some school officials are relieved, as they may already be adhering to the required practice or they may have already taken steps to move in that direction.

Others are, as mentioned above, confused about the implications of this ruling for non-ESL-related conditions of admission.

Still others may be completely stressing out, either because no changes have been made at their institution since the issuance of the draft guidance two years ago, or because they may be misinterpreting the guidance to mean that no form of conditional admission is allowed.

Know where you can go for help

My impression is that SEVP really made an effort to be transparent about and helpful in this process (though it may have taken a little longer than anticipated to issue the final guidance). In addition, the organization clearly wants to be helpful to its constituents. To that end, schools should be able to reach out to SEVP if they need help, either by contacting their SEVP Field Representative or by using one of the contact methods shown in the image below.

SEVP contact info
Excerpt of contact information from the “SEVP Spotlight newsletter,” July 16, 2016. Available for PDF download at


Feel free to share feedback. Alright, that’s it for me. I did my best to try to sum up some of the info that I have been reading in the forums and online about school officials’ concerns about this guidance; however, this is a complex issue that has serious implications in our institutions. If I got something wrong, or if I failed to mention another concern, please feel free to share your ideas or worries in the comments section below. This is definitely a topic worth discussing. Wishing you and your institution the best of luck!


(Note: This information is not to be construed as legal advice of any kind. For clarification about the regulations, DSOs should contact SEVP. Their contact information is listed above).

Image from Study in the States website, available at

By Nadia Redman

I'm a fan of "everything international:" travel, meeting people of other cultures, speaking foreign languages, cross-cultural communication, international business and marketing, etc. I'm also a bit of a nerd, LOL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s