There's a lot of paperwork, stress, and emotions that go into moving to the U.S. for college as an international student. Once you get through all that red tape to find the right school for you, a change in your institution's accreditation status could upend your plans.
If your program or school loses accreditation, it could mean you need to find a different program — or a different college entirely.
It's important to be aware of your school's accreditation status, especially if you're an international student, so you can know what steps to take if your school loses accreditation.
There are many reasons why a school could be at risk of losing accreditation. Whether it's because the Department of Education (ED) no longer recognizes an accrediting agency or because a school no longer meets an accrediting agency's standards, here's what accreditation loss means for your education and your international student status.
How Does Accreditation Work in the U.S.?
ED and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee independent organizations that accredit colleges and universities. A school's accreditation status can impact your ability to transfer credits, apply to graduate school, and even land a job.
If you're an international student, attending an unaccredited college can affect your ability to get a Form I-20, or the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.
The two main types of accreditation are institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation applies to entire schools, whereas programmatic accreditation applies to individual academic programs.
Generally speaking, programmatic accreditation only matters for fields that require state licensure, like nursing and psychology.
For international students, your school's accreditation status can affect you differently depending on the type of student visa you have.
Your school's accreditation status matters most if you have an F-1 or J-1 student visa. An F-1 visa requires you to either study at an accredited U.S. institution or study English at an English language institute. You must attend an accredited institution if you have a J-1 visa as well.
You can check a school's accreditation status using the directories on ED and CHEA.
How Do Schools Lose Accreditation?
A college or university can lose accreditation for many reasons. Whatever the reason, a loss of accreditation could affect your international student status.
Here are some common reasons schools may lose their accreditation status:
The institution fails to meet or uphold the accrediting agency's standards
ED no longer recognizes the accrediting agency
The school closes or merges with another institution
These instances are fairly rare, but it's important to know what can trigger a loss of accreditation so you know which steps to take.
How Recent Accreditation Changes Impact International Students
The biggest recent change to school accreditation took place in August 2022. At that time, ED announced that it no longer recognized the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), a popular national accreditor.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the loss of ACICS' recognition as an accreditor may impact international students in the following programs:
- English-language or ESL programs
- F-1 students applying for a 24-month STEM optional practical training (OPT) extension
If you earned a degree from an ACICS-accredited college before August 19, 2022, your accreditation is still valid.
If, however, you earned your degree after that date and your school was solely accredited by ACICS, your degree "will no longer qualify as a U.S. degree in terms of qualifying for the H-1B advanced degree exemption (also known as the master's cap)," according to USCIS.
In this case, you should contact your school's financial aid office or international students' office to see what steps to take.
What Accreditation Loss Means for International Students
Depending on the type of student visa you have, a loss of institutional accreditation could mean you have to transfer schools to keep your I-20.
Whether or not you have to change institutions also depends on whether your school loses accreditation or your specific program loses accreditation. In the former case, you can lose your visa.
In the latter case, your international student status is more likely to be unaffected. That said, you might face other challenges. For example, depending on your field of study, you may no longer qualify for state licensure.
If your school or program loses accreditation, the best course of action is to talk to your designated school official (DSO).
A DSO is a school employee who offers guidance and assistance to F-1 and M-1 students. This person can help you with things like changing your major and transferring.
Your school's lost accreditation doesn't automatically mean your international student status will be affected. A school certified by the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP) can still issue Form I-20s without necessarily being accredited.
This means your visa status could be fine in some circumstances. In any case, you should talk to your DSO as soon as possible if your school loses accreditation to confirm what steps to take next, if any at all.
What to Do if Your School Loses Accreditation: 4 Steps
If your school loses accreditation, don't freak out — here are steps you can take to ensure your international student and enrollment statuses are in order.
Read Any Press Releases Carefully
If any major changes happen regarding your school's accreditation status or your school's accrediting agency, you'll likely come across official announcements detailing the next steps and how this change impacts students.
Reading communications from USCIS and ED can help you find concrete information early on and clarifies whether you even need to worry about anything in the first place.
Talk to Your DSO
All SEVP schools are required to have a DSO to assist international students. You can contact your school's DSO through the international student office to get personalized advice and reassurance on what to do next.
Contact Your Financial Aid Office
Your school's accreditation status may affect your eligibility for financial aid. Go to your school's financial aid office to find out whether your financial support will be impacted — and what you can do if so.
Discovering your school has lost its accreditation can be scary, especially if you're an international student. Loss of accreditation can be confusing, and there can be so much more on the line than your education if it happens to you.
It's OK not to have everything figured out in one day. By talking to the right people at your school, you can lift the uncertainty off your shoulders a lot more quickly — and start focusing on coming up with an action plan.