HOUSTON -- Speakers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security addressed continuing confusion  over the agency’s interpretation of a new federal law requiring accreditation of intensive English programs Thursday at the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference. Those in attendance seemed to find the federal officials’ answers to key questions -- most urgently, what documentation such “university-governed” English programs must submit in order to prove their accreditation, and retain their right to enroll international students -- to be largely unsatisfying.
Here’s the background: in 2010, President Obama signed “An Act to require the accreditation of English language training programs, and for other purposes.” International education associations had lobbied for the bill, believing it would hold unaccredited, stand-alone English programs accountable. It was thought, however, that the university-governed IEPs – those intensive English programs that are embedded in established institutions of higher learning -- would meet the new law’s requirements by virtue of the regional accreditation of the universities in which they are based.
However, a recent interpretation of the law issued by Homeland Security’s International Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) called that belief into question.  The SEVP guidance stipulated that per the terms of the law, “all ESL programs of study that are SEVP-certified must either possess or have applied for accreditation before Dec. 15, 2011, by a regional or national accrediting agency recognized by the Department of Education,” and stated that SEVP would conduct unscheduled reviews of IEPs affiliated with universities -- at which point they would have 30 days to submit evidence of their accreditation status in order to remain in compliance and continue to issue I-20s to international students.
The wording left many in the field questioning whether specialized, program-specific accreditation for intensive English programs would be required, or whether regional accreditation of the university in which the program is based would suffice. (While some university-governed intensive English programs are specially accredited by the Commission on English Language Accreditation and the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, many are not.)
The basic message from the Homeland Security folks on Thursday was this: sure, university-wide accreditation would count, if the accreditor acknowledges certifying the IEP -- potentially a big “if,” given that regional accreditors certify institutions, not programs.
“SEVP is deferring to the accrediting agency: if the accrediting agency that accredits your institution says your ESL program is covered by their accreditation, we’re very happy with that,” said Link Powars, a senior management analyst who, along with Dianne Currie, the SEVP school certification unit chief, represented Homeland Security at NAFSA.
Powars said the department will be asking three main questions of universities: whether the program is their own, whether it is governed by them, and, if so, who accredits it. “We’re looking for a letter from the school, on school stationary, saying that it is their program, and a letter from the accrediting body saying that they understand that ESL is theirs, that it’s part of their overall accreditation.”
Later in the session an audience member posed a question regarding the specificity of the second letter: “Will the verification of the regional accrediting body be required to acknowledge the IEP specifically or could the letter simply state, ‘All programs and degrees administered by X university are considered accredited by X regional accrediting body’?”
“That’s a fine line,” Powars said. “Basically I would say yes… but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to request the accrediting agency to go ahead and say, ‘Yes, this ESL program is included in our overall accreditation of the institution.’ That’s very clear and there is no question.”
Yet, Cheryl L. Delk, president of the American Association of Intensive English Programs and director of Georgia State University’s IEP, was doubtful that accreditors would provide that letter. She questioned whether the federal officials understood that regional accreditors don’t approve specific programs. “They don’t accredit the French department or the biology department,” Delk said in an interview. Why would it be different for intensive English?
Ralph A. Wolff, president of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six regional accreditors, said that a number of institutions have contacted WASC on this point. In response, the agency has issued letters stating, essentially, that all the programs listed under the name of the institution are included under regional accreditation, which means that “the institution is responsible to demonstrate, should the need arise, that these programs are operating with integrity and quality, and we respond to complaints about them,” Wolff said.
“We’ll have to wait to hear from more institutions but we believe that these letters will be acceptable,” said Wolff, who also emphasized that while WASC does not evaluate every program and department, it does evaluate quality assurance systems. “I know that institutions are working with the department to try to work it out and I just hope it can be worked out," he said.
A lot of international educators share that hope. Ultimately, Thursday’s session mainly served to raise questions rather than resolve them.
At one point Powars made the comment, “Hopefully that clears up some of that,” to which an audience member, in something louder than a murmur but quieter than a shout, responded, “Not really.”
Delk and others said they would like to see written clarification from the federal government about what documentation will be required as evidence of accreditation. Both the AAIEP and the Consortium of University and College Intensive English Programs have formally stated their position  that any “program that submits evidence of being under the umbrella of a college or university accredited by a regional agency recognized by the U.S. DOE should not be asked for any additional documentation.”
Scott G. Stevens, director of the English Language Institute at the University of Delaware, was sympathetic to SEVP’s position, as he said the emergence of privatized pathway programs  -- which combine intensive English and academic coursework -- has complicated the issue of whether a university-based IEP is actually governed by the university. He said that it therefore seems fair for SEVP to request two things: a letter from the university stating that it governs the IEP, and a letter from the accreditor stating that the IEP falls under the umbrella of the institution it accredits.
Stevens added that given the confusion he would like to see the department offer extensions to university-governed IEPs as they are able to under the law. “All along you had colleges and universities saying, ‘I’m safe.’ Now they think, ‘I’m not safe,’ ” he said.
“It’s a shame that now at the 11th hour everyone is scrambling.”