By: Ana Tsareva
On December 12, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced that it no longer recognizes the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) as an accrediting agency. This decision affects more than 16,000 international students in the U.S. attending nearly 130 Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified schools and programs that are accredited by ACICS.
What immigration related categories are affected?
Most SEVP-certified schools are not required to obtain accreditation and can provide additional evidence in lieu of accreditation. However, there are two instances when SEVP-certified schools must be accredited and therefore two immigration-related programs will be affected.
- English language study programs, as the programs are required to be accredited under the Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act; and
- F-1 students applying for a 24-month science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) optional practical training (OPT) extension, as the regulations require them to use a degree from an accredited, Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified school as the basis of their STEM OPT extension. The school must be accredited at the time of the application; this is the date of the Designated School Official’s (DSO) recommendation on the Form I-20.
What should schools do?
A change in accreditation status is an event that schools must report in SEVIS within 21 days of its occurrence. The 21-day reporting requirement is rooted in 8 CFR 214.3(g)(2)(i), which refers to changes to the information listed at 8 CFR 214.3(f)(1), broadly worded as “any change to its school information,” and 8 CFR 214.3(h)(3), which requires “any changes from an SEVP-certified school to its Form I-17 information,” to be reported within this time frame, including the field labeled, The school has been approved by the following national, regional, or state accrediting association or agency.
SEVP states on its website that on March 15, 2017, it “began issuing appropriate notices and requests to schools which failed to report their loss of accreditation to SEVP and/or needed to meet requirements of continued SEVP certification.” The school must respond to SEVP with the required documentation within the response time allotted.
What should students do?
International students must take action if they are:
- Participating in an ACICS-accredited ESL program.
- Attending an ACICS-accredited school and wanting to participate in STEM OPT in the future.
F and M international students enrolled at ACICS-accredited schools must contact their designated school officials (DSOs) immediately to understand how the school’s loss of recognized accreditation will affect their program of study and nonimmigrant status.
If an ACICS-accredited school voluntarily withdraws from SEVP certification or cannot provide evidence in lieu of accreditation for programs listed on their Form I-17, international students at these schools will have 18 months to:
- transfer to a new SEVP-certified program;
- continue their program of study until the current session end date listed on their Form I-20 (not to exceed 18 months); or
- depart the U.S.
English language study programs.
USCIS will issue requests for evidence (RFEs) to any individual who filed Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status, on or after December 12, 2016, requesting a change of status or reinstatement in order to attend an ACICS-accredited English language study program.
If the student does not submit a new Form I-20 from an accredited school, USCIS will deny a change of status or reinstatement request because the program of study is no longer accredited by an entity recognized by ED.
The 24-month STEM OPT extension program.
F-1 students wishing to participate in the STEM OPT extension must have a degree from a DOE-recognized accredited U.S. educational institution at the time they file their STEM OPT application.
USCIS will issue a denial to any F-1 student filing a Form I-765 STEM OPT extension if:
- the STEM degree that is the basis for the STEM OPT extension was obtained from a college or university that was accredited by ACICS; and
- the student’s DSO recommendation for a STEM OPT extension, as indicated on Form I-20, is dated on or after December 12, 2016 (i.e., the date on which ACICS ceased to be recognized as an accrediting agency).
Because there is a requirement that students use a STEM degree from an accredited, SEVP-certified school at the time of application, the ACICS loss of accreditation prevents these students from qualifying for a STEM OPT extension. Students who receive a denial will have 60 days to prepare for departure from the U.S., transfer to a different school, or to begin a new course of study at an accredited, SEVP-certified school.