The U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced that it no longer recognizes the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) as an accrediting agency. This determination immediately affects two immigration-related programs:
-English language study programs, as the programs are required to be accredited under the Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act.
-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 Programs (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.
SEVP will provide guidance to affected students in notification letters, should their schools’ certification be withdrawn. However, students enrolled at an ACICS-accredited school should contact their designated school officials (DSOs) immediately to better understand if and how the loss of recognized accreditation will impact the F/M student’s status and/or immigration benefits application(s).
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 United States.
After this 18-month grace period, SEVP will terminate the SEVIS records of any active F/M student at an ACICS-accredited school who has not transferred to an SEVP-certified school or departed the United States. Please note, this guidance applies equally to all F/M students—regardless of program of study and the 18-month period is valid for English as a Second Language (ESL) students as well.
ACICS-accredited schools will be unable to issue program extensions, and students will only be allowed to finish their current session if the ACICS-accredited school selects to voluntarily withdraw its certification or is withdrawn by SEVP. If a student’s ACICS-accredited school is able to provide evidence of an ED-recognized accrediting agency or evidence in lieu of accreditation within the allotted timeframe, the student may remain at the school to complete their program of study.
English Language Study Programs
USCIS will issue requests for evidence (RFEs) to any individual who has 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. Upon receiving an RFE, individuals will have an opportunity to provide evidence in response, such as documentation showing that the English language study program they are seeking to enroll in meets the accreditation requirements.
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 an ED-recognized accredited U.S. educational institution at the time they file their STEM OPT application. As noted above, USCIS considers the filing of the application to be the date of the DSO’s recommendation on the Form I-20.
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, and 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 United States, transfer to a different school, or to begin a new course of study at an accredited, SEVP-certified school.
Students whose Forms I-20 have a DSO recommendation date prior to December 12, 2016, are not affected.