USCIS Releases Guidance Related to ACICS Loss of Accreditation24 May 2017
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released April 20, 2017 guidance on how international students, particularly those in English language study and STEM OPT extension programs, will be affected by the loss of accreditation of institutions previously recognized by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). According to the guidance, affected students have a limited time to make alternative plans, and they should keep in contact with their respective designated school officials (DSOs) to understand how the loss of accreditation will impact their ability to remain in the United States.
Background: ACICS Loses Recognition as Accrediting Agency
In December 2016, ACICS lost its U.S. Department of Education recognition as a national accrediting agency. In turn, the institutions that had been accredited solely by ACICS, including a number of universities with large foreign national student populations, are no longer considered accredited. [See the MurthyDotCom NewsBriefs, DOE Response to MLF Attorneys on Validity of Degree Issued Prior to University’s Loss of Accreditation (29.Dec.2016) and STEM OPT Eligibility Unlikely Following School’s Loss of Accreditation (30.Jan.2017) for more details on the loss of accreditation by ACICS.]
Grace Period for up to 18 Months, but Likely Shorter
Any international student at an ACICS-accredited institution should check with the school’s DSOs as to what the university intends to do regarding its Student and Exchange Visitor (SEVP) certification with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Specifically, the student should determine whether the school intends to voluntarily withdraw from SEVP certification or respond to any notice of intent to withdraw (NOIW) issued by ICE regarding decertification.
If the student is at an institution that withdraws from SEVP or cannot respond to an NOIW, the student can either (1) transfer to a new SEVP-certified program; (2) continue the current program of study until the “current session end date,” not to exceed 18 months; or (3) depart the United States. It should be noted that, while the USCIS calls this an “18-month grace period,” it likely will be shorter for most students because the “current session” is unlikely to last 18 months.
Students in English Language Study Programs
English language study programs are required by statute to be accredited. Any student who filed for a change or reinstatement of status on or after December 12, 2016 to attend an ACICS-accredited English language study program will receive a request for evidence (RFE). The student should respond to the RFE by submitting a new form I-20 from an accredited school.
STEM OPT Students
A student applying for the 24-month STEM OPT extension must have a degree from an institution that is accredited at the time of application. The USCIS defines “time of application” as the date of the DSO’s recommendation for STEM OPT on the form I-20. Therefore, the USCIS will deny an application for employment authorization (form I-765) for STEM OPT if: (1) the degree that is the basis for the STEM OPT extension was obtained from an ACICS-accredited school, and (2) the DSO recommendation for STEM OPT on the I-20 is dated December 12, 2016 or later. Any student who received the DSO recommendation before December 12, 2016 is not affected. A student whose application is denied because the degree was not from an accredited institution at the time of application will have 60 days to depart the United States, transfer to a different school, or begin a new course of study.
Any student at an institution that was accredited only by ACICS needs to be aware of how the loss of accreditation affects her/his status. Those with questions or concerns should contact the university’s DSO and/or an experienced attorney.
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