How To Start an ESL Language School
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If you want to start an ESL language school in the United States the process is similar to opening a private career school but if you hope to enroll your students from abroad the process will take you considerably longer.
“I-20” schools are schools that can enroll students from abroad and issue I-20 visas (F-1s or M-1s) so an international student may enter the United States. Since 9/11 the US Department of Homeland Security has been in charge of international student admissions and controls the process through the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
To apply for I-20 status an ESL school must be approved to operate in the State it is located and be accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency.
All schools in the United States that enroll Female and/or Male non-immigrant students must be certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Schools petition for certification by means of the Form I-17, "Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Non-immigrant Student," in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
What is SEVP certification?
Certification is the process schools go through to receive authorization from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to enroll Female and/or Male non-immigrants. Within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), SEVP reviews schools that desire to enroll non-immigrant students to determine denial or approval of certification.
Note: Certification does not pertain to J-1 exchange visitor programs; the Department of State designates the enrollment of J-1 non-immigrants as exchange visitors and has a separate authorization process.
Once certified, the school has access to SEVIS and may issue Forms I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Student Status,” to prospective non-immigrant students. To maintain certification, the school must comply with SEVP policies, as well as record keeping and reporting requirements stipulated in 8 CFR 214.3.
SEVP is the only government entity that can certify a school for the issuance of Forms I-20.
The following schools are considered to be academic institutions and may be approved for attendance by non-immigrant students under section 101(a)(15)(F)(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA):
· A college or university (i.e., an institution of higher learning which awards recognized bachelor's, master's, doctor's, or professional degrees).
· A community college or junior college which provides instruction in the liberal arts or in the professions and which awards recognized associate degrees.
· A seminary.
· A conservatory.
· A public high school.
· A private elementary, middle, and/or high school.
· An institution that provides language training, instruction in the liberal arts or fine arts, instruction in the professions, or instruction or training in more than one of these disciplines.
The following schools are considered to be vocational or non-academic institutions and may be approved for attendance by non-immigrant students under section 101(a)(15)(M)(i) of the INA:
· A community college or junior college which provides vocational or technical training and which awards recognized associate degrees.
· A vocational high school.
· A school that provides vocational or non-academic training other than language training
The Accreditation of English Language Training Programs Act (January 2018):
Non-immigrant students attending an English Language training program of study (ESL programs) should take note that a new law has taken effect. In accordance with the Accreditation Act, all ESL programs of study that are SEVP-certified must either possess or have applied for accreditation before December 14, 2013, by a regional or national accrediting agency recognized by the Department of Education.
In accordance with the Accreditation Act, SEVP is examining two types of ESL programs of study for compliance with the Accreditation Act:
· Stand-alone ESL schools whose officials have indicated on the school’s Form I-17, "Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Student," the intention to offer only ESL programs of study
· "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 (either contracts out the ESL program of study or wholly owns and operates the ESL program of study under the institution’s governance)
Here is the ICE document detailing all the required items to submit the I-17 Form: Download