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16k international students affected as ACICS loses accrediting powers

The US Department of Education has withdrawn its recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which it estimates will affect some 16,000 international students either studying on English language programmes or planning to remain in the US under the STEM Optional Practical Training programme.

ACICS loses accreditation powers - Study in the States website noticeACICS accreditation is no longer recognised by the US Department of Education. Image: DHS.

A Department of Education report said ACICS routinely failed to adequately police schools under its oversight

ACICS accredits some 250 institutions in the US. This includes around 130 ESL and higher education institutions that are certified by SEVP to recruit international students.

The agency was the accrediting body for the now-defunct Northwestern Polytechnic University in California, which was exposed as a visa mill last year.

“I find ACICS to be out of compliance with numerous agency criteria”

An investigation by Buzzfeed revealed that staff at the university had manipulated grades to ensure students didn’t fail courses and risk losing their visas – and that ACICS had maintained NPU’s accreditation despite having been informed by a whistleblower of the extent of these practices.

Announcing the final ruling last month, the Secretary of Education said the agency – which also accredited IIT College and many locations of Corinthian Colleges chain, which both filed for bankruptcy within the last two years – was “out of compliance with numerous agency criteria”.

“Because of the nature and scope of ACICS’s pervasive noncompliance, I further conclude that ACICS is not capable of coming into compliance within 12 months or less, even if I renewed its recognition for an additional 12 months,” Secretary John King Jr. said.

With the exception of ESL programmes, SEVP doesn’t require most schools to be accredited in order to receive its certification, international students applying for the recently extended 24-month STEM OPT extension must have a degree from an accredited institution.

This means that international students at ACICS-accredited higher education institutions must transfer to a SEVP-certified school that is accredited by another recognised body before they can apply for OPT.

Schools that want their students to be able to apply for the STEM OPT extension have been instructed to become re-accredited with an alternative body, along with ESL programmes, which must be accredited in order to remain SEVP certified.

The government has also instructed international students on ACICS-accredited ESL programmes that do not intend to gain alternative accreditation to transfer.

However, in reality, ESL students who are already enrolled will be allowed to complete their coursework, meaning most won’t be affected by the change.

ESL programmes that are accredited by ACICS alone won’t be able to issue new Form I-20s – the certificate of eligibility international students need to obtain a study visa – for English language programmes until they gain alternative accreditation. Most ESL schools are accredited by either CEA or ACCET.

“Our goal is to ensure ACICS retains its recognition and recover our role as a highly-regarded accrediting agency”

The revocation also means that domestic students at education institutions accredited only by ACICS – currently around 30,000 students – will be unable to claim federal aid after the 18-month grace period.

Shortly after Buzzfeed’s investigation last summer, the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity voted 10-3 to revoke ACICS’s power to accredit schools.

The decision was informed by a departmental report that recommended withdrawing the agency’s accrediting powers, saying that it routinely failed to adequately police schools under its oversight.

In the intervening months, ACICS appealed the decision. In a statement on its website, the company said it had been “working diligently on an aggressive review, renewal and reinvention agenda aimed without reservation at a markedly strengthened accreditation process”.

However, the appeal failed and an application submitted by the agency for a temporary restraining order to halt the decision was also denied.

Roger Williams, interim president of ACICS, said in a statement the agency will press ahead with litigation to reverse the decision over the next year.

“While we are disappointed, [the] ruling does not relate to the merits of our claims, nor does it impact our litigation against the Department and our request for an injunction that would prevent implementation of the Department’s decision,” he said.

“Our goal is unchanged: to ensure ACICS retains its recognition and, furthermore, to renew and recover our historical role as a highly-regarded accrediting agency.”

A federal court will review the agency’s claims that the Department of Education’s decision was flawed and potentially unlawful in a Preliminary Injunction hearing on February 1.

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