UR has ended Social Security Number (SSN) focus groups, a program that allowed international students to receive an SSN, for the next school year.
The Focus Group Program was introduced by the Office of International Students in 2012 as a way to help UR international students obtain their SSN through University sponsored employment opportunities. SSNs, while not mandatory, allow international students to apply for certain credit cards and loans, as well as easily pass background checks when renting apartments and even when buying cars. Only students who had a “service” relationship would be eligible for an SSN, so they could either be part of focus groups or seek employment on campus, a much longer-term process.
International students could apply to participate in focus groups through the Office for Student Employment, and then be hired by participating departments of the University. Students would receive a letter of employment signed by the hiring department and the head of the school designated in the ISO. Students would then be taken to the Social Security Administration (SSA) office in downtown Rochester to apply for an SSN.
Without focus groups, students must research campus employment opportunities on their own to be eligible for an SSN. However, as not all international students choose to work during the school year, it is difficult for them to get an SSN without focus groups.
Last year, the program was halted after review by the University’s Office of the Attorney General. According to ISO, some students did not fulfill their focus group obligations by not cashing checks they received from department jobs or by attending focus group meetings.
“It was recommended that the program be redesigned to strengthen the criteria supporting such a relationship, such as considering the increase in the number of focus group sessions during the year,” Assistant Vice-Rector and Director of the Ravi International Services Office Shankar said. âParticipants were to be paid minimum wage for time spent in each session in accordance with applicable laws on wages and hours. Due to the revised structure, the challenges of an ongoing pandemic, most schools did not have the capacity and resources to support an expanded program.
Junior Esha Mardikar, who attended the program in her first year, was sad to see it disappear.
âIt was extremely helpful, especially since I didn’t know anything about all of the different barriers international students face when it comes to being employed in the United States,â Mardikar said. âISO has been very helpful in helping us overcome a huge hurdle that would have been extremely difficult to overcome on our own, and I’m still so thankful that they put so much effort into making sure we got our SSNs with barely no problem. “
For current international freshmen and sophomores who are on campus for the first time, the removal of ISO focus groups has posed a barrier to easily obtaining an SSN.
To help international students navigate the U.S. tax systems, ISO hired a CPA in early 2021 at no cost to students to help them obtain an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN), which does not require that students have a job at the University.
“We also recognized that students who receive scholarships and other institutional funding, with non-serviced payment relationships with the University, from countries with a tax treaty with the United States must have an alternative so as not to be taxed at a higher bracket, âsays Shankar.