Unless the U.S. moves away from using counterterrorism methods to man the gates into higher education, vulnerable international students will continue to be exploited by unscrupulous recruiters
In January 2011 Tri-Valley University (TVU), an institution of higher education in Pleasanton, California, imploded spectacularly and left 1,500 or so Indian students on its rolls in legal limbo, with a number of them facing the prospect of deportation, an uncertain academic future and, in some cases, the indignity of wearing ankle radio tags.
The scam exposed several fundamental flaws in U.S higher education regulation, but the authorities shifted blame to unscrupulous graduate recruiters in Indian states such as Andhra Pradesh, and said conspicuously less about how such shady operators managed to slot many hundreds of bonafide students into even shadier nooks of the American education system.
In recent weeks their deafening silence on the matter has come under renewed pressure after another college, Herguan University in Sunnyvale, California, teetered on the brink of a similar implosion following charges of visa fraud being levelled against its CEO, Jerry Wang. The similarities between the cases of Wang and jailed TVU boss, Susan Xiaoping Su, are remarkable.
Quite apart from the fact that Su was a former Herguan employee and was said to have “gotten the idea to start TVU” there, both she and Wang apparently managed to exploit two fundamental loopholes in U.S. regulations governing university admissions for international students: first, the profound lack of sophistication in the way regulators are assessing university quality; and second, the job has been entrusted to the wrong people.
Both flaws are related yet separately significant too. Take the second loophole first: the fact that the Department of Education, the only true repository of expertise in assessing what “education quality” means in the U.S., in not regulating university admissions is setting the system up for failure. Why has this happened? It is a quirk of history that can be traced back to the U.S. Patriot Act of 2001.
The revelation that at least one of the terror suspects in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 had entered onto U.S. soil on a student visa and then not even showed up on campus once, prompted calls for urgent reform in managing student visas. But the solution proposed was rooted more in counter-terrorism than in education.
The Bush administration empowered the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to monitor the gates into higher education in the U.S. In doing so it ignored the rather logical choice of the Department of Education as the better candidate for the job.
A parallel development was the birth of the monumentally deficient Student and Exchange Visitor Programme (SEVP) and its primary monitoring weapon, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Together, they are supposed to be the silver bullet for international student admissions assessments for DHS’s enforcement-focussed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Yet, it was through SEVIS that individuals such as Wang and Su were able to supply Indian recruiters with a superabundance of I-20 forms, the basis on which a student entry visa is ultimately issued by U.S. consulates and embassies abroad.
While there is no denying that some of the students knew perfectly well that the work authorisations being made available to them by TVU and Herguan were illegitimate, the vast majority of them did not think it necessary to suspect the actions of an “accredited” university official who gave them such an authorisation.
This is where the other systemic flaw in U.S. university admissions regulation, of lax assessment standards, enters the picture. The U.S.’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) — an equivalent to India’s Comptroller and Auditor-General — issued a stinging critique of the malaise months ahead of Herguan’s ongoing collapse. In its report on “DHS Needs to Take Actions to Strengthen Monitoring of Schools,” published on July 24, 2012, the GAO said, “ICE does not have a process to identify and assess risks posed by schools in SEVP.”
GAO highlighted that ICE did not consistently implement internal control procedures to assess schools. It was such loopholes that the alleged fraudsters at TVU and Herguan exploited, according to the authors of one of the most in-depth investigations of the dark side of American higher education.
The investigation, by Tom Bartlett, Karin Fischer and Josh Keller of The Chronicle of Higher Education, made it clear back in March 2011, that Indian students had paid a particularly severe price for the weaknesses pointed out by GAO.
In their report titled “Little-Known Colleges Exploit Visa Loopholes to Make Millions Off Foreign Students,” Bartlett et al argued that TVU and its peers were quick to realise that “India is ripe for exploiting SEVIS loopholes, in part because of the sheer number of students there who want to come to the U.S.”
Indians were also most receptive to these pitches by rogue recruiters back home because, “although the country has a burgeoning middle class, many of its students still need to work to afford an American university degree,” they noted.
The result? Students from India arriving in droves, allegedly working full-time, in low-level retail jobs retail disguised as career training, all for the purpose of being employed for the duration of their studies. In the case of TVU up to 553 students were said to have been listed as living in a single two-bedroom apartment near the college, whereas in truth they fanned out across the nation, including the states of Maryland, Texas and Illinois.
On the flip side the university heads enriched their coffers and upgraded their lifestyles on the money they had squeezed out of hardworking, middle class students from India.
According to the Chronicle’s investigation, Su purchased a 6,384-square-foot house in December 2010 for $1.8-million and made the 15-minute drive to TVU’s headquarters in a Mercedes-Benz.
If these were isolated cases of deviant university bosses exploiting vulnerable foreigners, it may be a small measure of solace, as ICE is yet to close off the loopholes that made exploitation on such an eye-wateringly large scale possible in the first place.
In fact the Chronicle’s investigations may well have named the next likely candidate heading for regulatory shutdown – International Technological University (ITU), which is apparently “just down the road from Herguan,” literally and metaphorically.
Not unlike NVA, ITU narrowly survived with its accreditation intact after a visit by investigators from ICE in 2010. In fact it went on to take in a number of students displaced from TVU’s collapse shortly thereafter. Whether ITU’s continued existence is a good or bad development for its students is not still clear.
What is obvious though is that unless the U.S. moves away from its current ham-fisted policy of counterterrorism-cum-higher-education, there could be a hundred more Herguans and they will ultimately sour the mood of even the most ardent enthusiasts of the U.S.-India higher education partnership.