The Right to Work

Dispute at Cornell University centers on a program allowing international students to work.

September 23, 2016

International students coming to the U.S. are often eager to gain work experience, but they’re subject to legal restrictions that American students are not.

A dispute at Cornell University sheds light on the regulatory requirements that institutions have to navigate in authorizing internships or other training opportunities for international students and the stakes for those students.

The dispute -- which was largely resolved on Thursday -- involves a program called curricular practical training, or CPT, through which international students on F-1 visas can work up to full time in an internship or other type of cooperative education program with a sponsoring employer. The Department of Homeland Security regulations governing the program state that CPT can only be authorized when the work-related opportunity is "directly related to [a student's] major area of study" and "an integral part of an established curriculum."

At Cornell, the economics department had initially decided to stop facilitating CPT opportunities for international students pursuing paid summer internships for a few stated reasons, one being that the internships were not deemed "integral" to the major. The economics department has, however, backed away from that initial decision in response to a resolution introduced in the Student Assembly calling for the restoration of CPT opportunities, and now plans to continue to process CPT-related paperwork while faculty make some curricular changes.

The sponsor of that Student Assembly resolution, Akhilesh Issur, said he motioned to withdraw the resolution from the assembly floor in light of the department's change of heart. Issur, the international student liaison to the assembly, first proposed the resolution last week after fellow students, mostly juniors majoring in economics, approached him with "serious concerns" about their summer internship options.

“They are very stressed because recruitment has already started for internships in banking, finance and consulting, and they are unaware if they will be able to secure work authorization for next summer's internships,” Issur said in written responses to questions.

"A lot of international students seek initial work experience in the U.S. before going back to their home country because firstly, there are much more opportunities here, and secondly, this international experience is very important to get jobs back in their home countries as well," Issur said. "Not being able to get such work experience (via an internship leading to a job offer) therefore very much jeopardizes career aspirations of international students whether they want to remain here or go back home."

An internal report on the economics department's use of CPT -- excerpts of which were provided to Issur by the department's director of undergraduate studies, Stephen Coate, to explain the initial decision to cease offering CPT -- provides some background on how economics majors were previously using the CPT program, and why some faculty were concerned about the practice.

“Currently, some of our overseas undergraduate majors use CPTs to obtain work authorization for paid summer internships,” an excerpt from the report states. “Obviously, such internships are not required by our major. So, to meet CPT requirements, we certify that the internship is ‘required’ for a credit-­bearing course. This course is a one-­credit independent study that is undertaken in the fall semester following the internship. The student is required to write a short paper (6-­7 pages) describing (supposedly) some link between their internship and what they have been learning in the major.”

“We have a number of concerns about our current use of CPTs,” the excerpted version of the report says. “First and foremost, while we are arguably meeting the letter of the law, we are clearly violating its spirit. The fact of the matter is that these summer internships are not integral to our major or part of our program. We are simply inventing a course and claiming that the internship is required for it. We feel that this is abusing the system and we are highly uncomfortable facilitating this abuse.”

“Second, we see little educational value in having our majors undertake these independent studies. It is usually very difficult for them to identify a link between their internships and what they have been learning in the major. Indeed, it is typically the case that no clear link exists.”

The report further describes as “fundamentally unfair” the fact that the one-credit independent studies were being offered to international students but not to American students, who don’t need CPT authorization to do an internship. “Indeed,” the document states, “this asymmetry reveals in stark terms that the credit-­bearing course that we are claiming the internship is required for is nothing other than a gimmick to circumvent the law. If it were not, then the course would be available to all our majors.”

In an email, the chair of the economics department, Larry Blume, described the excerpted material as being "from an early internal thought piece from two faculty members that was speculative, and not reflective of the view of the entire department, the college or the university."

(To that, Issur said he was "perplexed about why the [director of undergraduate studies] only gave me 'a speculative' report that reflected the views of only two people when I specifically asked for the reasons that pushed the department as a whole to take this decision -- a decision that was indeed taken by the department.")

Blume, the Donald C. Opatrny '74 Chair, provided the following written statement Thursday afternoon: "The economics department is currently working with university administration to construct an educational experience that meets Cornell's academic standards. The department intends to adopt a new policy once this assessment process has concluded."

"We are sensitive to the concerns expressed by the Student Assembly about how this change in policy could disadvantage international students entering the job market. As faculty members, first and foremost, we have a responsibility to ensure that our curriculum meets Cornell’s long-held standards of excellence."

The statement concludes: "For any international students receiving an internship offer before a new policy is in place, the economics department will process their CPT paperwork. However, students must understand that the requirements for course work associated with that CPT will be determined at a later date, at which time students will be responsible for completing those requirements."

The Student Assembly resolution sponsored by Issur had maintained that there were ways for the economics department to improve the quality of the independent studies -- to make the requirements for them more rigorous and relevant -- and to make them available to American and international students alike, rather than eliminate the option altogether.

The decision to authorize CPT or not ultimately lies with what the federal government terms "designated school officials" -- a role typically performed by staff members in a university's international students and scholars office. The director of Cornell's international students and scholars office declined to comment for this article through a university spokesman.

The case at Cornell highlights the confusion that the regulations governing CPT have caused in the international education field. While the CPT program can be outright abused -- the fake University of Northern New Jersey, an institution with no classes and no faculty set up by federal investigators as part of a sting operation, enrolled many foreign nationals who used the sham school as an avenue to obtain CPT authorization to work full time -- there's also plenty of confusion on the part of legitimate educational institutions about when it is and isn't appropriate to authorize it.

“It’s supposed to be training, the opportunity’s supposed to be directly related to the student's major and it’s supposed to be -- here’s the great vagary -- an integral part of an established curriculum. So what is an integral part? What is a curriculum?” asked Scott F. Cooper, a senior counsel with the immigration-focused law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy.

Cooper said the international education field has been waiting for further guidance from the federal government on these questions for years. Absent that, some colleges take a strict interpretation, only approving CPT when a work experience is a required component of a required course for a major, while others have been more flexible in granting it when a work-related opportunity is directly related to a student’s program.

"That's really the spirit of the regulation, I think, is if it’s directly related, and it’s something a student normally engages in as part of their educational program," Cooper said. "That’s the thing about the word 'curriculum': does curriculum technically mean a course, or do you look at it more as the educational program experience? That’s what attracts many international students to the U.S. It’s not just the courses. It’s the program experience."


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