Immigration Impact of ACICS Losing Recognition as Accrediting Agency21 Nov 2022
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) terminated recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) as an accrediting agency on August 19, 2022. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), in turn, recently issued an alert explaining the immigration impact this loss of DOE accreditation has for different categories of foreign nationals. As the USCIS explains, this affects foreign nationals seeking to enroll in an English language study program at an ACICS-accredited school, those applying for a STEM OPT extension following completion of a program from an affected school, and certain beneficiaries of H1B and I-140 immigrant petitions.
Background on ACICS
In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the DOE found ACICS to be noncompliant, resulting in ACICS losing its recognition as an accrediting agency in December of that year. In 2018, however, the Trump Administration reversed that decision, with the DOE again deeming ACICS a nationally recognized accrediting agency, and even applying this decision retroactively to the date in December 2016 when it was stripped of this recognition. Under the Biden Administration, the DOE again found that ACICS was failing to comply with federal recognition criteria, ultimately resulting in ACICS losing its status as a nationally recognized accrediting agency, effective August 19, 2022.
English Language Study Programs
One of the requirements for an F-1 student to attend an English language study program is that the program must be accredited. If a program is solely accredited by ACICS, it is no longer permitted to enroll F-1 students. Per the updated USCIS guidance, students enrolled in such a program are permitted to complete the current session, but will not be granted any extensions based on that program.
If a foreign national has a pending I-539 application requesting a change of status to, or reinstatement of, F-1 status to attend an English language study program that is ACICS-accredited, the USCIS will issue a request for evidence (RFE). At that time, the student will be given the opportunity to submit evidence that the program qualifies (i.e., is accredited by a recognized accrediting agency). If the student is unable to submit a new form I-20 from a school accredited by a recognized agency, the USCIS will deny a change of status or reinstatement request.
STEM OPT Applications
A STEM OPT extension cannot be granted if the F-1 student did not obtain a degree from an accredited school. Therefore, the USCIS will deny any STEM OPT application if BOTH:
- The STEM degree under which the STEM OPT extension is sought was obtained from an institution that was solely accredited by ACICS.
- The university’s designated school official (DSO) recommendation for STEM OPT on form I-20 is dated on or after August 19, 2022.
Fortunately, this decision by the DOE does not impact a foreign national who already has been approved for STEM OPT or who applied for an OPT extension based on an I-20 dated August 18, 2022 or earlier.
Impact on H1B and I-140 Petitions
One of the requirements to qualify for the H1B master’s cap is that the foreign national must have a master’s (or higher) degree from an accredited U.S. university. If the individual graduated from an ACICS-accredited school prior to August 19, 2022, it still may be possible to use that degree to qualify for the master’s cap. If, however, the F-1 student graduated on or after August 19, 2022, that would not be considered a qualifying degree for the master’s cap. Similarly, a degree from an ACICS-accredited school cannot be used to qualify for an H1B position, or for a professional or advanced degree position listed in an I-140 petition, unless the degree was issued before August 19, 2022.
As of August 2022, the ACICS was serving as an accrediting agency for fewer than 30 schools in the United States. Therefore, this decision by the DOE will directly impact only a relatively small number of foreign nationals. Nevertheless, for those who are affected, consulting with an experienced immigration attorney to determine any available options may be worthwhile.
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