Federal Agency Clarifies Mandate on Accreditation of English-Language Programs

July 02, 2012

Weeks after it caused a furor by suggesting that university-run English-language programs would have to receive separate accreditation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security late Friday issued a policy statement clarifying how such programs can demonstrate they are covered by institutional accreditation.

While the department did not back off its insistence that campus-run programs produce proof of accreditation under a 2010 law—something program directors contend the legislation never intended—the new guidance will go a long way toward allaying concerns, language-program officials said this weekend.

Specifically, the policy bulletin asks university-run programs under review to produce two documents:

  • A letter, statement or certificate from the institutional accreditor that the English-language program is under the umbrella of approved programs for which its parent university has received accreditation.
  • A signed statement by the institution's owner, president, or head of school that the intensive English program is under the institution's governance.

The guidelines were released by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVP, the arm of the Homeland Security Department that oversees the student-visa system and ensures that institutions and their international students are in compliance with the law. SEVP asked for comments on the policy statement, through July 13.

The openness to feedback is a somewhat different tone than that struck by agency officials at a recent meeting at the annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators. There, officials insisted they were only going "by the book," and their comments largely served to increase perplexity among language-program administrators.

Patricia Juza, a member of the executive board of the American Association of Intensive English Programs, said her group would likely draft some comments. "In general, though," Ms. Juza wrote in an e-mail message, "we are pleased to see that SEVP has finally issued a written document, which seems to clarify rather than confuse things."

In recent weeks, Ms. Juza's organization, along with University and College Intensive English Programs, another membership group, contacted regional accreditors for information about exactly how to request accreditation information, in case of a Homeland Security review. Three of the six agencies have responded, detailing the process, which differs among the accreditors.

It was an earlier Homeland Security policy bulletin that alarmed English-language program administrators, because it seemed to suggest that the university programs could be required to apply for specialized accreditation or lose their ability to enroll foreign students. Intensive-English programs are an important and popular path for international students to come to the United States.

The move surprised campus-run programs, which believe they are exempt from the spot accreditation checks used to verify stand-alone language schools' compliance. Under a 2010 law, independent language schools are now required to have accreditation, or to show they are in the process of applying for it, in order to be approved to admit foreign students. Officials at university-operated programs maintain they qualify to be part of the visa system because they are units of institutions with regional or national accreditation.