Frequently Asked Questions about POPE
What is POPE and what does it do?
The Private and Out-of-State Postsecondary Education (POPE) unit of the Academic Affairs division of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is responsible for the certification of private and out-of-state postsecondary educational institutions operating in Virginia. The POPE unit is responsible for developing procedures for private and out-of-state institutions wishing to receive approval to confer degrees, certificates, or diplomas in Virginia to follow. POPE is responsible for designing measures to ensure that all certified postsecondary educational institutions meet minimal academic standards; ensuring protections for students pursuing educational opportunities at these institutions; and providing information to assist persons to make sound judgments regarding schools offering postsecondary degrees, diplomas, and certificates in Virginia. POPE staff attempts to foster and improve the educational programs and services of these institutions while protecting the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia from fraudulent or substandard operations. In addition, POPE mediates complaints between students and certified institutions.
What is a postsecondary school?
A postsecondary school is any entity offering formal instructional programs with a curriculum designed primarily for students who have completed the requirements for a high school diploma or its equivalent. Such schools include programs of academic, career-technical, and continuing professional education, and exclude avocational and adult basic education programs. A postsecondary school may issue degrees, certificates, or diplomas as evidence of successful completion of a program of study.
What types of organizations must seek certification to operate in Virginia?
Any person, firm, association, postsecondary school, trust, or other intending to offer or confer degrees, diplomas, and certificates, enroll students or to use the term “college” or “university” in connection with its academic affairs or business in the Commonwealth of Virginia must seek certification. Also, any postsecondary school that seeks to conduct telecommunications activities from a Virginia site must seek certification. The school must have a physical presence in Virginia to be considered for certification. SCHEV interprets physical presence to mean the school offers instruction at a site in Virginia or maintains a fully-operational administrative site on a full-time basis in Virginia from which prospective students can obtain admissions, and/or academic information.
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What types of organizations are exempt from SCHEV certification?
The following types of postsecondary schools are exempt from SCHEV certification:
- Schools whose primary purpose is to provide religious training or theological education that does not award secular degrees.
- Any nursing education program regulated by the Virginia Board of Nursing that leads to licensure; if the program of study lead to a degree, the school must seek SCHEV certification prior to seeking approval from the Virginia Board of Nursing.
- Any professional program for professional or occupational training offered by a school to the extent that the program is approved or regulated by any other Virginia or federal governmental agency, and offered by a school that is not seeking degree-granting status.
- Any course or program of study given by or approved by a professional body, fraternal organization, civic club, or benevolent order principally for continuing or professional education or similar purpose, and for which no certification, degree, or degree credit is awarded.
- Courses or programs offered through approved multistate compacts, including but not limited to the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus.
- Courses offered by accredited postsecondary schools provided solely on a contractual basis for which no individual is charged tuition and for which not advertising has been made for open enrollment.
- Any school, institute or course of instruction offered by any trade association or any non-profit affiliate of a trade association on subjects related to the trade, business or profession represented by the association.
- Tutorial instruction delivered and designed to supplement regular classes for students enrolled in any public or private school or to prepare an individual for an examination for professional practice or higher education.
- Schools of fine arts or other avocational courses that are conducted solely to further artistic appreciation, talent, or foe personal development or information.
- Privately-held institutions of higher education that were formed, chartered or established in Virginia that have maintained a main or branch campus for at least 10 continuous years under the same ownership and maintained full accreditation by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
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Is there a difference between certification and accreditation?
Yes, there is a difference. Certification by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is mandatory, by law, for non-exempt institutions to operate in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Certification must be renewed annually. Private and out-of-state postsecondary educational institutions that are certified to operate in Virginia must meet certain standards of operations, established by the General Assembly, that include faculty preparation, financial stability, maintenance of student records, library and classroom facilities, procedures for student admissions and graduation, organizational and administration standards of operation, and consistency of a school’s state purpose with the proposed offerings. The POPE unit of SCHEV monitors the certified schools by conducting site visits, investigating student complaints and random audits of the institutions.
Accreditation, however, is a non-governmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs. In most cases, authorization for one to two years is a prerequisite for accreditation. Private educational associations of regional and national scope have adopted criteria reflecting the qualities of a sound educational program and have developed procedures for evaluating institutions or programs. These criteria determine whether or not institutions or programs are operating at basic levels of quality. Accredited institutions are required to prepare and execute an in-depth self-evaluation study that measures its performance against the standards established by the accrediting agency by which the institution is accredited. Accrediting agencies closely monitor each accredited institution or program throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the standards set by the agency. Additionally, accreditation is voluntary.
SCHEV requires all out-of-state institutions and in-state, degree-granting institutions to be accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in order to seek and maintain eligibility for certification.
Are there benefits to certification?
SCHEV certification gives the school credibility in Virginia. A list of certified schools is made available to students, parents, public agencies, job seekers, school counselors, and others interested in education and training.
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How does a school become certified to operate in Virginia?
A postsecondary school seeking certification to operate in Virginia must complete and submit an application for certification and all required fees. SCHEV staff will visit the school site to ensure the school meets certain operational and safety standards and has the necessary equipment to operate a school in accordance to its stated mission. Upon the receipt of a complete certification application and the completion of a successful site visit, SCHEV staff will recommend the schools approval for certification to the Council, at its next scheduled meeting. The school will be notified, in writing, of the Council’s action and, if approved, a Certificate to Operate will be issued.
Will credits earned at a POPE school transfer to another institution?
Any student interested in transferring credit hours should check with the receiving institution to determine to what extent, if any, credit hours can be transferred. Whether or not credits transfer is solely up to the discretion of the receiving institution.
What happens if a POPE institution closes?
If a POPE institution decides to voluntarily cease operations, it must immediately inform SCHEV staff of the following:
- The planned date of the termination of operations
- The planned date and location for the transfer of student records.
- Arrangements for the continued education of currently enrolled students via a teach-out agreement or other practical solution.
- A roster showing the name, address, and current academic status of all enrolled students.
If the school does not have a records maintenance agreement with another institution or a records-maintenance organization, SCHEV will secure and preserve the academic records of all formally and currently enrolled students. Students can contact SCHEV to obtain academic transcripts to verify attendance for educational or employment purposes. SCHEV also administers the Student Tuition Guaranty Fund (STGF), which provides financial restitution to students injured by the closure of school previously certified to operate in Virginia. A student can file a claim against the STGF if he/she was enrolled or was on an approved leave of absence at the time of the school closure, and the closure prevented the student from completing the program of study for which her/she was enrolled. Claims must be filed within three (3) years of the school’s closure. The student is entitled to a refund of the unearned, non-Title IV paid, tuition received by the institution.
Are there advertising standards to which POPE institutions must adhere?
All institutions that are certified to operate in Virginia must include in all print and electronic catalogs and course registration materials (i) a clear statement that SCHEV certifies the school to operate in Virginia and (ii) a complete address of the main campus and all branch locations operating in Virginia. The school must refrain from including in advertisement or any other material produced by or on behalf of the school statements that indicate that the school is supervised, recommended, endorsed, or accredited by the Commonwealth of Virginia, SCHEV or any other Virginia governmental agency. Further, no school, agent, or admissions personnel may knowingly make any statement or representation that is false, inaccurate, or misleading regarding the school.
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