Fraudulent American Universities

More than 1500 foreign students are beseeching consulates across the United States to stay in the country, some wearing electronic ankle bracelets to track them, after US authorities blew the lid off a scam perpetrated by the dubious Tri Valley University (TVU) in Pleasanton, California.

The university had aided what authorities described as the illegal immigration of 1,555 foreign "students" – most of them Indians – from their countries to the US, operating from ramshackle premises in the San Francisco Bay Area and randomly transmitting lectures over the internet to "students" across the US rather than physically holding classes.

Although TVU was based in California, investigators say its 'students' were scattered throughout the country, from the East Coast to the Midwest to the Deep South. The reach of the operation helped TVU’s founder – a Chinese-American woman named Susan Su – to mint millions in tuition fees by issuing fraudulent visa-related documents to aspiring immigrants. Most paid up to US$2,800 per semester to TVU, some as much as US$16,000 up front for a full course to obtain a degree.

Intriguingly, most of the students appear to have known that TVU was a shady operation that offered illegal immigration. Internet forums were abuzz with complaints and forewarnings by erstwhile "students" about the outfit’s dubious dealings. Regardless, such ominous signals were ignored by the students, which led to their victimization.

Analysts say India sends roughly 12,000 students annually to US colleges and universities each year for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. To gain admission, students have to clear an obstacle course of qualifying exams such as the Graduate Record Exam, the Graduate Management Achievement Test and the Test of English as a Foreign Language. If the student is accepted, he or she is issued an F-1 student visa by the US consulate.

However in recent years, to exploit the immigration fervor amongst the Indians, many universities have devised clandestine ways to waive the GRE/GMAT requirements. The students were instead asked to pay thousands of dollars for dubious programs like the Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) as a shortcut to get employment after a college degree.

However TVU went a step further by offering the students jobs even before they could acquire a degree. They were offered OPT/CPT from day one which meant that the "students" could technically start "working" from the first day of college.

According to US regulations, for a student to maintain an active immigration status, he or she must show proof of reasonable progress towards completing coursework and physically attending classes. However, such formalities were clearly dispensed with at TVU.

Meanwhile, the TVU issue has acquired a diplomatic hue between Delhi and Washington with the US authorities threatening to deport the duped students. Delhi has also objected to the radio tagging of a few of TVU’s students. Such `tagging’ involves fitting the person with ankle monitors linked to a GPS (Global Positioning System) to help federal authorities track their movements. Such devices, say experts, are normally used on criminals and convicts as an alternative to confinement during a pending investigation.

The desperate students say they cannot be blamed for enrolling in a university recognized and accredited for accepting foreign students. They say they should thus be allowed to seek transfer to other universities to prevent loss of face back home and loss of money.

Even as the future of these hapless students hangs in the balance, experts point out that the TVU scam raises larger questions about the entire system. Namely, the lack of rigor involved in vetting Indians migrating to America and the laxity of American authorities in allowing "diploma mills" to masquerade as "universities".

For instance, the TVU boasted on its website that its mission "is to make Christian scientists, engineers, business leaders and lawyers for the glory of God, with both solid academic professionalism and Christian faith, therefore to live out Christ-like characters, value and compassion in the world, to make an impact and shine as its light." But in reality, it didn’t even have a proper campus and was instead remote controlling its shady dealings mostly over the internet.

"The TVU case should serve as a wake-up call for Indian students aspiring to go and study in American colleges," says Prakash Kaushal, a student counselor at Delhi University. "The case highlights the need for a rigorous process to guide the exponentially growing number of Indians applying to study abroad."

Ironically, TVU is not the only American "university" which has taken overseas students for a ride. In another scam that created global headlines in 2000, many Indian students alleged they were duped by the University of Phoenix for "failing to meet the requisite mandatory academic standards including study-group meetings as instructional hours". The US Department of Education fined the university $6 million for the offence.

A federal whistle-blower/false-claims lawsuit filed by two former Phoenix admission counselors alleged that the university had "improperly obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid" by paying its admission counselors solely on the basis of the number of students they had enrolled.

This amounted to a clear violation of the Higher Education Act that prohibits distributing financial incentives to admission representatives and pressuring its recruiters to enroll students. Subsequently, Phoenix's parent company – Apollo – had to settle the dispute by paying the United States $67.5 million without acknowledging any wrongdoing.

The Indian academic community believe that in the days to come, the situation is likely to get progressively more cutthroat as more and more foreign universities aggressively tap the Indian student community to study on their campuses. It is estimated that by 2025, about 800,000 students from India will leave to study in foreign shores as against the current 85,000.

In an adverse economic climate, foreign students – who must pay fees almost three to four times higher than the amount paid by domestic students – are naturally considered a prized catch.

"Universities intent on growth in these officially austere times are particularly reliant on foreign students," says a counselor with the Australia-India Council in New Delhi which facilitates the movement of Indian students to Australian colleges. "To start with, they are crucial to the finances of cash-strapped universities. They are often clever and industrious. Besides, taking a big slug of students from other countries gives universities a more international flavor, enriching the mix and broadening the experience of local students in the process."

While there’s nothing wrong with that ambition, experts say a system of checks and balances should also be inbuilt into the process to prevent frauds. "Any application to a Foreign University/Institution must be accompanied by a No-Objection Certificate issued by the concerned embassy in India," says the counselor.

Similarly, the Missions of the concerned countries should certify the genuineness of the educational institutions of their respective countries. This list should be posted for Indian students on the website of AICTE (All-India Council for Technical Education) which is the supervising body for all such transactions."

Other experts add that to ensure further transparency, a foreign university or institution should also submit an annual report to AICTE giving details of the number of students admitted, programs conducted, total fee collected, number of students awarded degree, diploma and any other information the body may ask for.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist;