New fee for international alumni in STEM to be delayed after pushback

The proposed fee is for an extension to a program that allows international STEM graduates to remain in the US after graduation to work.

by Nathanael Ashton-Piper

The University of Minnesota’s International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) department will delay a new $300 fee for some international graduates in STEM careers applying to extend their U.S. work authorization through Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Previously set to go into effect on March 15, the fee will now be implemented in the fall 2021 semester after pushback and conversations with student senators and representatives from the University’s Council of Graduate Students (COGS).

OPT is a temporary employment authorization that allows international graduates to stay in the U.S. and work in a field directly related to their major for up to one year after completing their degree. The STEM OPT extension adds 24 months for students who graduated from and found employment in science, technology, engineering or math fields.

Many students became aware of the new fee after receiving a weekly update email from ISSS on Feb. 15, which contained information about the fee’s upcoming implementation.

Barbara Kappler, the assistant dean and assistant director of ISSS, said that ISSS did not consult with students in the process of coming up with the fee because the $300 charge would apply to graduates who are already employed rather than current students.

Many people were shocked and outraged that a new fee was set to be charged so soon without any prior conversations, said Sarani Millican, a second-year law student and student senator.

“[ISSS] thought that since this was an alumni-based matter that current students or current student government leaders would not be too proactive in still advocating for past students,” said Briggs Tople, the chair of the student senate. “But even then, [ISSS] stated that they had not consulted with anybody from the alumni association either. So it was not just a failure to consult with student leaders but also the alumni association as well.”

Millican, Tople and COGS leaders met with Kappler and other ISSS staff to discuss the fee on March 5.

“[ISSS] regrets that some international students feel surprised by the fee,” Kappler said. “Several of our staff met with student leaders on [March 5], and we genuinely appreciated that meeting and the opportunity to talk with students.”

Reason for the new fee

After prolonging the STEM OPT extension period from 17 to 24 months in 2016, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began mandating more ongoing reporting requirements for recipients of STEM OPT extensions.

According to Kappler, the proposed fee would ensure that ISSS, which reviews and manages STEM OPT extensions, could adapt to the increased reporting requirements without compromising its services to current international students and scholars.

ISSS had considered the fee several times as it grappled with the “time-intensive nature” of the additional ongoing reporting mandated by USCIS, Kappler added.

ISSS settled on the new $300 fee after analyzing the number of STEM OPT-eligible alumni and assessing the workload created by additional USCIS requirements, said Missy Peterson, the director of finance and operations for the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance office.

Response from students

Even more than potentially having to pay an extra $300, students and graduates are worried about the lack of communication from ISSS before notifying students of the new fee, Millican said, adding that ISSS was happy to engage with student representatives after they reached out about the fee.

“I left the conversation with ISSS feeling that it had gone well,” Tople said. “I think it was a frank conversation, and we came to an understanding of a need for more consultation on these issues in the future.”

As a former international student and now a student senator, Millican said she felt it was her duty to figure out what she could do to speak up for the international community.

ISSS charges an additional student services fee of $175 per semester to international students on temporary nonimmigrant visas, including F-1 holders. The fee covers immigration advising, academic support and other services for students.

“ISSS charges fees that are at the high end of similar fees for peer institutions, and the lack of additional fees to process OPT on the back end has been cited in the past by ISSS to justify their regular fees being so high,” said Scott Petty, the president of COGS.

In response to a COGS resolution on international graduate student fees in 2019, Kappler said that peer institutions charged a similar fee ranging from $70 to $250.

“When comparing fees [at other universities], it is important to note that each ISSS office and institutional funding model differ in the percentage of central funds it receives, how institutions cover personnel costs, the amount of revenue from ISSS administrative fees and additional fees assessed for international graduates and undergraduates,” Peterson said.

As of 2019, fees covered 87% of all ISSS expenses, said Kappler.

“It is our wanting to make sure we have the resources to meet the mandated [USCIS] functions, so revenue generated [from the fee] would go toward covering the costs for the advising and reporting that we have outlined,” Kappler said.

Many international students feel uncomfortable speaking up for themselves, and this makes them particularly vulnerable as a community, Millican said.

“When I was an international student, I lived in mortal fear of accidentally losing [immigration] status — and that is even with following all the rules and being an ‘exemplary’ person,” Millican said. “When you live in that world of never wanting to take the slightest risk that could result in your losing of education or employment, that does not make for the kind of person who will be willing to speak about what they feel is an injustice. They are more likely to swallow it and move on.”

International students and graduates are anxious about additional fees that this process may create down the line, Tople said.

“There was concern around the precedent this may set for the future,” Tople said. “That if the U.S. government was to add additional measures around how to handle policy with international students, that it might set the precedent of ISSS simply raising fees continuously.”

ISSS needs to be able to work with student advocates to ensure that the University understands its value and how adequate ISSS funding can help past, current and future international students, Tople added.

While stressing the importance of ISSS’s work, Millican said this situation could have been mitigated had relevant stakeholders been looped in from the beginning.

“Talking to people is valuable even if it slows things down,” Millican said. “And even if there is resistance, the final product is always better when you involve relevant stakeholders and talk to them. Sometimes you will hear things you do not want to hear, and sometimes that will help you make a better solution.”