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Dr Bill Larkin, Executive Director of ACCET, USA

Dr Bill Larkin, Executive Director of the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET), represents one of two organisations charged with accreditation of Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) in the US. He talks to The PIE about the new-look landscape.

The PIE: What were you doing before ACCET?

"With this legislation it is a challenge because IEPs have to have two years of operation before they are eligible to issue I-20s"

BL: I spent most of my life in university student affairs work and more recently served as a president of both a not-for-profit and a for-profit college. Just prior to that I was higher education executive officer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The PIE: What proportion of your accreditation jurisdiction at ACCET is IEPs?

BL: We accredit career colleges, freestanding professional development operations and IEPs. They are about a third of our membership – they’ve grown dramatically within the last three or four years and I’m very pleased to have them as a significant part of our operation.

The PIE: How has your accreditation oversight evolved and is it evolving?

“There are only two organisations that specialise in IEP accreditations. And so we have seen quite an influx in those last couple of  years”

BL: Well you know in 2010 there was new legislation in the US that mandated that IEPs be accredited and there really are only two organisations that specialise in those accreditations – ACCET and the Commission on English Accreditation (CEA). And so we have seen quite an influx in those last couple of  years. For both organisations, it has been quite demanding because we are the gatekeepers of quality control and we have disappointed a lot of organisations because they have not met our standards.

We now have a very, very healthy group of IEPs who are very involved in our organisation and who have taken on a leadership role, and it’s quite an exciting time I think for the IEP members of ACCET.

The PIE: Do you have any idea of how large the community was that didn’t get accredited by deadline?

BL: Since I have been there we probably turned down about 15 groups, some of which have appealed but have largely not been successful. I would imagine CEA have turned down a similar number.

The PIE: Do you think there is a catch-22 for new ESL schools that want to open?

BL: With this legislation it is a challenge because they pretty much have to have two years of operation before they are eligible to issue I-20s and in some cases before they are eligible to begin the accreditation process. It is a challenge; we have had some year-round schools in the last year or so that have been successful so it’s not impossible, but it certainly is complicated.

“We have had some year-round schools in the last year or so that have been successful so it’s not impossible, but it certainly is complicated”

The PIE: How have they been managing to teach ESL without issuing I-20s?

BL: By starting with local populations, folks that already have green cards and who are in the States on other kinds of visas, doing some short-term programmes – intensive, four-week language programmes for US students that are overseas.

The PIE: Tell me about your relationship with the State Department.

BL: We have really excellent relationships with the Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP): lines of communication are open; Louis Farrell, the head of operations, has been at our annual conference. I would add that we have a collegial and collaborative relationship with CEA. We don’t see ourselves in competition. We consider ourselves colleagues that are doing the same job. The two different organisations have different areas of emphasis. We do our best to maintain cordial relations.

The PIE: Why would an institution choose one [accreditation] over the other – or might they have both?

BL: Typically they would not have both, although there are some organisations that have both. We have a tendency to have a membership that includes more of the freestanding IEPs. They may have relationships with universities but are a separate entity. CEA has a higher number of IEPS that are embedded in a university, but again we both have a little bit of each other, too; it’s not a pure line of demarcation.

The PIE: In terms of standards that you use, has there been much change? What are the critical areas of focus?

“Issues that relate to student attendance and completion are very important because they oftentimes give you an idea as to quality”

BL: There has not been a lot of change but we put a lot of emphasis on completion and student progress; the operational part, also. We are concerned about curriculum and faculty qualifications but we find that issues that relate to student attendance and completion are very important because they oftentimes give you an idea as to [quality].

The PIE: So what do you look for in terms of attendance?

BL: Well, we look for an attendance policy that demands 80% or 90% attendance. We have an emphasis on being very precise on leaves of absence and tardiness and other kinds of issues.

The PIE: How often do you have spot inspections?

BL: Accreditation periods are three or five years and that is a determination that our committee makes for each organisation.

We do a quality assurance visit about half way through the accreditation period for new IEPs to see how things are going.

The PIE: Is it unannounced?

BL: It is semi-announced. They know it is coming and we give them 24 hours’ notice to make sure key people are there.

“Emphasis now is on quality institutions with good standards and I think that that will continue. It isn’t a one-shot thing”

The PIE: Is the IEP stakeholder community much more robust now, do you think?

BL: Yes I do think so actually, the emphasis now is on quality institutions with good standards and I think that that will continue for the future. IEPs have really embraced standards that the two organisations have – it isn’t a one-shot thing, there’s continuous improvement involved that needs to occur year after year.

The PIE: Do you have much connection with international students?

BL: When we do a site visit, we go right into classrooms and we do interview the students as part of our routine site visit. As part of our routine site visit, we seek them out and try to get their reaction to the education that they are receiving.

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