U.S. May Require College Language Programs to Get Special Accreditation

May 20, 2012

University-run English-language programs fear that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security may require them to apply for separate specialized accreditation or lose their ability to enroll students from abroad.

In a bulletin recently sent to colleges and language schools, and in communications with individual institutions, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVP, has said that both stand-alone and college language programs must produce evidence of their accreditation during certification reviews, or risk being booted from the system. SEVP is 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.

Under a 2010 law, independent language schools are now required to have, or to show they are in the process of applying for, accreditation in order to be approved to admit foreign students.

But campus programs believe they are exempt from the spot accreditation checks that verify the schools' compliance; they say they qualify to be part of the visa system because they are units of institutions with regional or national accreditation. While two groups, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training and the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation, specifically evaluate and approve language programs, many university-run intensive English programs are not individually accredited but are certified through institutional accreditation.

International-education groups, many of which supported the 2010 law as a way to bring greater oversight to bad-actor language schools, contend that SEVP is misinterpreting the measure. They're taken aback, they say, to suddenly be asked to produce evidence of accreditation when they are part of institutions in good standing. And they point to the legislative record, noting that the law's sponsors differentiate between individually accredited programs and those covered by institutional certification.

"It's not something that would be required of the French department or the biology department or the math department," says Patricia Juza, director of global programs in continuing and professional studies at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. After all, her English-language program is part of the overall college structure, staffed by college employees, and overseen by college administrators, she says. "Why should it be looked at any differently?"

The student-visa program disagrees that it's misconstruing the law. In an e-mail message, Gillian M. Christensen, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, wrote, "SEVP committed a significant amount of careful review and interpretation of the Act and its view is not a mistake."

"Any schools with regionally or nationally recognized accreditation whose accreditor reports to SEVP that it does not accredit ESL language training programs, or which states that they will have to review and accredit the ESL training program before it will be included in the school's accreditation portfolio, will be asked to remove that program of study from the list of programs for which the school is certified" to admit international students until the program does attain accreditation, Ms. Christensen writes.

Earning accreditation can take a year or more, educators say. That could be problematic for universities; language programs are important points of entry for foreign students, especially as larger numbers of students with subpar English skills seek to study in the United States.

Already, at least one English-language program at a flagship public university was told it would lose the right to admit foreign students after it submitted documentation of its institutional accreditation to SEVP. The SEVP reviewer then called the university's regional accreditor and asked if the agency accredits language programs, says Jeff Hutchenson, who serves with Ms. Juza on the board of the American Association of Intensive English Programs. After the accreditor replied "no," the Homeland Security official told the university that its language program would no longer be permitted to accept international students.

"That's the wrong question," says Mr. Hutcheson, who works for ELS Language Centers, a private language company, and is past president of the language association. "Regional accreditors accredit the institution as a whole, they don't have specific standards for language programs." (In this case, the university successfully appealed the decision, Mr. Hutcheson says.)

In a letter to SEVP, Nafsa: the Association of International Educators, says it has received "numerous reports" from accredited colleges that the student-visa program has required them to provide "subject-matter-specfic confirmation from their accrediting bodies, as well as extremely detailed programmatic information regarding the school's intensive English-language offerings."

"Such requests are excessive and unnecessarily burdensome," Nafsa writes in its memorandum, complaining that neither colleges nor the accrediting agencies have been given a clear sense of what documentation SEVP is seeking to prove accreditation. In a separate letter, the American Association of Intensive English Programs and another language consortium, the University and College Intensive English Programs, write that SEVP "adds to the confusion" by not specifying what evidence of accreditation programs must provide.

Ms. Christensen says the Student and Exchange Visitor Program will make clear what documentation it is seeking from programs when it does its reviews.

Ironically, this spat comes after Homeland Security pledged to work more closely with colleges and language programs that accept foreign students to make the visa system more open and user friendly.

And while the language programs fought to ensure that stand-alone providers should have some sort of oversight, SEVP has not sought to require that colleges themselves be accredited in order to accept international students. Indeed, the department has argued that such restrictions could harm small operators. That, critics say, has left the visa system open to abuse, a problem that came to light a year ago after Homeland Security had to shut down a "sham university" in California that enrolled hundreds of Indian students.