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SEVP Implementation of the Accreditation Act

As the fall semester approaches, colleges and universities should be conscious of developments relating to the certification requirements that apply to schools that enroll foreign nonimmigrant students. During the first half of 2012, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (“SEVP”), the federal agency responsible for certifying institutions to enroll foreign nonimmigrant students, began implementing changes that will affect all colleges, universities, and other educational institutions that provide English language training (“ESL”) programs. These changes stem from the Accreditation of English Language Training Act (“Accreditation Act”), which became effective in June of 2011.

The Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act

Pursuant to the Accreditation Act, ESL programs that enroll foreign nonimmigrant students must obtain accreditation from a regional or national accreditation agency recognized by the Department of Education. This requirement has significant implications for educational institutions that enroll foreign nonimmigrant students in ESL programs.

According to recent guidance published by SEVP, the Accreditation Act applies to two types of ESL programs:

  • Stand-Alone ESL Schools whose officials have indicated on the school’s Form I-17 the intention to offer only ESL programs of study; and
  • Combined Schools whose officials have indicated on the school’s Form I-17 that the school offers an ESL program of study, as well as other programs of study (A Combined School may either contract out the ESL program of study or wholly own and operate the ESL program of study under the institution’s governance).

Any college or university that offers ESL programs in addition to general courses of study would fall within the “Combined School” category. Combined Schools are subject to the requirements imposed by the Accreditation Act.

Compliance with the Accreditation Act

Compliance with the Accreditation Act is not simple. There are few private agencies that accredit ESL programs and the process to apply for accreditation is lengthy; for some agencies it can take between one and two years, and, in some instances, even longer. This new law accounted for the delays associated with obtaining accreditation by granting a three-year reprieve from its requirements for ESL programs that applied for accreditation prior to December 15, 2011. Programs that did not meet the December deadline, however, may not continue to enroll foreign nonimmigrant students.

Implementation of the Accreditation Act by SEVP

SEVP has already started to issue out-of-cycle review notices to schools offering ESL programs. An out-of-cycle review is a demand for the school to submit evidence of its continued compliance with SEVP certification requirements. Schools have 30 days from receipt of an out-of-cycle review to submit evidence of compliance to SEVP. If the school is unable to prove that its ESL program is accredited, then the school must cease enrolling foreign nonimmigrant students in its ESL program and may not issue new Form I-20s for its ESL program.

SEVP has not provided clear guidance as to what constitutes sufficient evidence of compliance with the Accreditation Act. All colleges and universities with SEVP certification are accredited by a regional or national accreditation agency, but, typically, the accreditation is general and applies to the entire institution. At this time, SEVP has not clarified whether this type of accreditation is sufficient to satisfy the Accreditation Act’s requirements or whether ESL programs at Combined Schools will require separate accreditation that specifically addresses their ESL program.

Additional Considerations for Colleges and Universities

The Accreditation Act applies only to colleges and universities that offer ESL programs. The first step, therefore, is to determine if your English program is in fact an ESL program as defined by SEVP. According to SEVP, “[i]f English language training is just an adjunct or it will be taken in conjunction with another program of study, do not indicate English language training [on the Form I-17].” 1 Based on this guidance, schools that teach English as part of their curriculum, but do not provide a separate, stand-alone, ESL program will not need to comply with the additional requirements imposed by the Accreditation Act.

The application of the Accreditation Act will vary between colleges and universities based on the details of their ESL program. 

1 See I-17 Frequently Asked Question: Preparing the Petition for SEVP Certification, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (available at

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Susan J. Cohen, Immigration Attorney, Mintz Levin Law Firm
Member and Chairperson of the Immigration Section

Susan is the founder and Chair of the firm’s Immigration Practice, which is composed of 10 attorneys and 15 immigration specialists and assistants who service the immigration needs both of Mintz Levin’s existing corporate and individual clients, and of new clients who choose the firm precisely for its knowledge in the field of immigration and nationality law. Mintz Levin also is committed to handling political asylum cases, most of which are taken on a pro bono basis.

Susan is actively involved in the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and has chaired and co-chaired a...

Douglas Hauer, Immigration Attorney, Government Investigations, Mintz Levin Law

Douglas is a Member in the firm's Immigration Practice and also practices in the Israel Business Group. His practice focuses on business immigration law, related government investigations, family-based green card sponsorship processes, EB-5 investor visa filings, and corporate immigration policy development.

He has represented multinational corporations in the financial services, technology, management consulting, hedge fund, specialty chemicals, insurance, defense, and engineering sectors. He has in-depth experience counseling corporate clients on the immigration consequences of complicated corporate restructuring and has drafted immigration provisions of acquisition agreements. Doug has also guided in-house counsel and human resources professionals on all aspects of US and global immigration law and policy. He has also worked extensively on helping large-scale businesses in India with complex visa issues.

One of Doug's related practice areas is advising private clients on a range of issues involving the Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations and procedures. He has assisted accomplished individuals with securing visas and green cards and has provided counsel to individuals on expatriation and green card relinquishment. Doug is also particularly strong in working on EB-5 matters for clients from jurisdictions with restrictive currency control and export laws.

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Alec practices in all areas of complex litigation, including fiduciary matters, insurance and reinsurance, and corporate governance. Alec also routinely advises clients regarding compliance with state and federal regulations.

Alec has experience litigating disputes between shareholders of closely-held corporations and providing advice regarding corporate governance to directors and officers of public and private corporations.