U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials, speaking at an international-education conference here, did little on Thursday to clarify the confusion surrounding new requirements for the accreditation of university-run English-language programs.
Indeed, they even suggested that the department's unexpected demand that campus programs produce evidence of accreditation during certification reviews or lose their ability to enroll foreign students was "nothing to get upset about."
Judging by the reaction of the program directors who crowded an auditorium for an early-morning session at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association for International Educators, that's unlikely.
The controversy arose two weeks ago, when the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, or SEVP, the arm of the department that oversees and enforces the student-visa system, sent a memorandum to colleges and language schools, notifying them that they must show proof of accreditation during spot certification checks.
The bulletin took university-run language institutes by surprise because they believed they were exempt from a 2010 law requiring accreditation since they are parts of institutions in good standing with accreditors. Many worried that they would have to obtain separate accreditation, as independent language schools do.
In Thursday's session, the Homeland Security officials did make clear that university-run programs that can show evidence of institutional accreditation by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education will, in fact, not have to obtain individual accreditation.
But precisely what language institutes will have to do to comply remains vague. "Confused" is how Beata Schmid, the incoming president of the American Association of Intensive English Programs, summed up the reaction.
Intensive English institutes, said Dianne Curry, the school unit certification chief for SEVP, will have to produce two letters: one from the university and another from a regional or national accreditor, both attesting to the program's accreditation. "The law tells us English-language programs have to be accredited, and we're asking for a statement, a letter from an accrediting body," Ms. Curry said.
That caused Cheryl Delk-LeGood, president of the language-program association who was moderating the session, to break in: "Does SEVP understand that regional accreditors don't accredit programs or departments?" said Ms. Delk-LeGood, director of the intensive-english program at Georgia State University. "They accredit institutions."
Ms. Curry responded: "We're basically going by the book."
Link Powers, another Homeland Security official, said SEVP would defer to the accrediting agencies. "We're deferring to them, whether the accreditor says the program is covered by the overall institutional accreditation," he said. "We're fine with that, we're happy with that."
But after the session, Ms. Schmid, Ms. Delk-LeGood, and others said already one regional accreditor had declined to write a letter attesting to accreditation because it does not review and certify individual programs within an institution.
The program directors worry that the Homeland Security Department is misunderstanding university accreditation and misinterpreting the 2010 law, which was sought by international-education groups that wanted to bring greater scrutiny to bad-actor language schools.
What's more, many administrators said they felt blindsided by the department's action, saying they were not consulted about interpretation of the law. "We've been waiting for this day" and the opportunity to ask questions, Ms. Delk-LeGood said.
But at the end of the hourlong session, Ms. Delk-LeGood still had a thick wad of index cards with unanswered audience queries.
Administrators wonder: How specific will the wording on accreditation have to be? Must it single out the language program, or is it enough to say it covers the institution as a whole? What will happen to current students if programs cannot demonstrate that they are covered by institutional accreditation? If they do opt to apply for program-specific accreditation, what happens if they have not obtained it by the time a compliance review is conducted?
Patricia Juza, a board member of the language-program association, said the group was likely to draft a letter for Homeland Security officials, as a model of what they should ask of accreditors. "We want to give them some guidance," she said.
And Mr. Powers said that, at the direction of SEVP's director, Louis M. Farrell, the agency would put together a list of frequently asked questions and provide language programs with scenarios showing how different types of institutions and programs might respond.
Meanwhile, he told the audience, "don't be alarmed" if your institution is contacted for a spot check. "It's nothing to get upset about."
But Ms. Juza, director of global programs in continuing and professional studies at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, said she remained concerned, given that language programs increasingly are important points of entry for foreign students, especially those who struggle with English. "These are our students, our programs," she said. "We worry about what's going to happen to them."