Enhanced Rapture: Crackdown on Crappy Colleges Is More Useful than Reported Earlier

By David North, February 13, 2017

Typically a writer hates to report that something he had written needs to be revised, but in this case I am delighted to declare that I understated the impact of a government decision regarding marginal colleges, as I did last month under the heading "Mild Rapture: a Federal Agency Cracks Drown on Crappy Colleges".

I now realize that "Enhanced, if Not Total, Rapture" would be a better description.

This all relates to how the government regulates bottom-of-the-drawer universities in terms of their powers to create various benefits that, in turn, allow both real and not-so-real foreign students entry to the United States, and governs the length of their stay here. This being a Washington story, it involves many initials, the interaction of two federal agencies, each of which has some power to regulate the lesser schools, and the nuanced results of those interactions.

Most colleges and universities are accredited by legitimate agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. A small number of universities were accredited only by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which, in December was de-recognized by DoE on the grounds that it had been far too lenient in many of its prior decisions. An even smaller number of colleges have no accreditation at all.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security routinely grants the license to issue the I-20, which leads to the F-1 visa for foreign students, whether the institutions are accredited or not, with certain exceptions discussed later. Loss of accreditation, while it would bring lower prestige to the marginal institutions, would not deny them immediate loss of the right to issue the I-20 — that had been my earlier point.

That's only a partial picture, however, because the situation is more complicated than I first realized. The new situation hurts the lesser schools in two different ways:

The ESL Loss. DHS regulations require that institutions wanting to issue the I-20 to students planning to study English as a second language (ESL) must currently be accredited by a DoE-recognized agency. The de-recognition of ACICS as of December 12 meant that institutions only accredited by it became ineligible to cause the admission of ESL students. It did not shutter these schools, but it denied them new foreign ESL students, a major blow.

Many of these institutions, however, could then turn around and admit most of those students in another discipline, but that would involve an awkward transition and something of an admission by the college that it was only partially recognized by the U.S. government. Many of these marginal entities have large ESL departments.

In instances in which the institutions only offer ESL courses it will be devastating. The ACICS decision will not impact the small group of institutions that train people for work in the aviation field, but they still have to secure the blessings of the Federal Aviation Administration to secure a license from DHS to teach aliens.

The OPT/STEM Extension Loss. Meanwhile, many of these visa mills, or partial visa mills, offer many (normally low prestige) degree programs involving IT skills; if a foreign student was at the master's level, and taking what appeared to be a full-time course load, he could immediately secure a job under the Optional Practical Training program, a scheme set in motion by the Bush II administration and enlarged by the Obama administration with no congressional involvement. (This benefit is available for a non-master's student only after the passage of a year in the United States.) A variation of that program allowed the degree holder up to 12 months more of legal employment after the degree is secured (employment in which both the employer and the worker can avoid payroll taxes — a gift not given to American workers.)

The arrangements described above are not impacted by the loss of ACICS accreditation, but another, similar, richer benefit is terminated.

The best part of the OPT package for an alien is the possibility of getting a two-year extension of his or her OPT work permit and the no-payroll-tax subsidy; this is available only to those with degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. This double goodie is not available for those who file (or filed) for the benefit after December 12, 2016, if the granting institution had only ACICS accreditation.

This means that foreign students currently in an ACICS-only program working toward a not-yet-awarded STEM degree may want to change to a higher-ranked university to continue their studies; this should move some foreign students from the marginal to better institutions, while perhaps reducing the enrollments of the former.

In a better world it would not be so complicated, all migration benefits for students, of all levels, would be regulated in the same way.

ACICS Fights Back. ACICS has gone to court seeking temporary and permanent restraining orders against the DoE decision. It lost the first round when DC District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton denied a motion for a temporary restraining order. A hearing on the issuance of a preliminary order will be held on February 21.

The ACICs-only schools are said to be looking around for alternative accrediting organizations and have 18 months to do so, while in a sort of a limbo.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a DHS agency, estimates that 130 ACICS-only schools, and some 16,000 F-1 visa holders will be impacted by the new rules.