UR has discontinued the Social Security Number (SSN) Focus Groups, a program that enabled international students to receive an SSN, for the upcoming school year.
The Focus Groups program was introduced by the International Students Office in 2012 as a way to help UR international students get their SSN through University-sponsored employment opportunities. SSNs, although not required, allow international students to apply for certain credit cards and loans, as well as get through background checks easily when renting apartments and even when buying cars. Only students who had a “Service” relationship would be eligible to get an SSN, so they could either become a part of the Focus Groups or seek on-campus employment, a much more long-term process..
International students could apply to be in Focus Groups through the Student Employment Office and then be hired by participating departments of the University. Students would receive an employment letter signed by the hiring department and the Designated School Official in the ISO. Students would then be taken to the Social Security Administration (SSA) office in downtown Rochester to apply for an SSN.
Without the Focus Groups, students have to look for on-campus employment opportunities on their own to be eligible for an SSN. However, as not all international students opt to work during the school year, it poses a challenge for them to obtain an SSN with no Focus Groups.
Last year, the program was discontinued upon review by the University’s Office of General Counsel. According to ISO, some students failed to meet the obligations for the Focus Groups by not cashing in the checks they received from the department employments or attending the meetings of the Focus Groups.
“It was recommended that the program be redesigned to strengthen the criteria supporting such a relationship, such as consideration of expanding the number of focus group sessions during the year,” Assistant Vice Provost and Director of the International Services Office Ravi Shankar said. “Participants were required to be paid minimum wage for time at each session consistent with applicable wage and hour laws. Due to the revised structure, the challenges of an ongoing pandemic, most schools did not have the capacity and resources to sustain an expanded program.”
Junior Esha Mardikar, who went through the program their first year, was sad to see it go.
“It was immensely helpful, especially since I didn’t know anything about all the different barriers international students face when it comes to being employed in the U.S.,” Mardikar said. “ISO was so helpful in helping us overcome a huge hurdle which would have been extremely difficult to navigate alone, and I’m still so grateful that they put in so much effort to make sure that we got our SSNs with barely any trouble.”
For current first-year international students and sophomores who are on campus for the first time, the removal of ISO’s Focus Groups has posed a hurdle in obtaining an SSN easily.
To help international students navigate U.S. tax systems, ISO hired a CPA in early 2021 at no cost to students to assist them with obtaining an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which does not require students to have employment with the University.
“We also recognized that students who receive fellowships and other institutional funding, with non-service payment relationships with the University, from countries with a tax treaty with the U.S. needed to have an alternative so as not to be taxed at a higher bracket,” Shankar said.