The Accreditation Act passed in 2010 required that F-1 students pursuing an English language training program must attend a program that is accredited by a Department of Education recognized accrediting agency. University-governed programs were covered by their university’s regional accreditor, which meant that for them, an additional specialized accreditation was optional. All proprietary programs – mostly for-profit language schools – were required to seek and gain accreditation.
The Accreditation Act was supported, and its passage celebrated by, program directors and leaders at university-governed and well-established, already-accredited for-profit language school companies. They were motivated by a strong desire to bring greater professionalism to the field and to weed out a significant number of unscrupulous and fly-by-night operators who had cleared the relatively low bar for entry into the industry and whose low standards were tainting the field as a whole. Since the passage of the Act, the two specialized accrediting agencies for intensive English programs, CEA and ACCET, have added hundreds of intensive English programs to their rolls. Plenty of programs that sought accreditation have been denied, and the weeding out process has been largely successful.
But some consequences are not so unequivocally positive for the field:
- The accreditation process costs up to $10,000, plus annual sustaining fees. This is a significant financial burden on programs, especially during a time of enrollment challenges. While university-governed programs have the option of sheltering under their institution’s accreditation and avoiding these costs, proprietary programs have no choice but to pay up or cease doing business.
- The requirement for an IEP to be accredited creates a Catch-22 for potential new entrants into the market. A proprietary program has to be in business for two years (ACCET) or one year (CEA) before it can apply for accreditation. The accreditation process itself takes around 18 months, and if it succeeds, the program must then wait for F-1 issuing approval from the federal government. In the words of one IEP administrator in this situation, “It felt like being choked to death for four years.” During this time, the program has to survive on non-F-1 students. The near-impossibility of this makes the price of entry extremely high for those wanting to enter the field. While there were always requirements to become an F-1 school, the Accreditation Act raised almost insurmountable barriers to new proprietary players.
- A consequence of this is greater consolidation in the proprietary IEP market. If you cannot start a new school, you have to purchase an existing one. Inevitably, those with the resources to do this are large companies seeking to develop branded chains of English schools. Further, accrediting agencies make it relatively easy for existing schools to open new branches through a simplified accreditation process for the new branch, thus allowing existing companies to expand while new entrants continue to struggle to gain entry.
- Accreditation likely has the effect of curbing innovation in the field. Adherence to accreditation standards tends to result in institutional isomorphism (the phenomenon of institutions of a certain type looking the same), and programs are reluctant to launch anything radically different for fear of not complying with accreditation standards. Aside from surface details (number of levels, number of weeks per session, etc.), IEPs can be quite difficult to tell apart. This, combined with the lengthy SEVP approval process for new programs, in turn leads to commodification in the industry: potential students have difficulty telling one program apart from another, and use price, location, and established brand reputation to make their choice rather than any specific features of a program.
Overall, the benefit to the field has been positive. Students can apply to U.S. IEPs with the knowledge that their chosen program has been verified by an accreditor to meet high standards. The price to the industry as a whole is high though, and we should look for ways to mitigate the downsides – in particular to find ways to foster innovation and be open to new models – as we continue to face challenging market conditions in the years to come.