Hyderabad/ New Delhi: When US federal authorities raided the University of Northern Virginia (UNVA) in a Washington suburb on 28 July for suspected visa fraud and slapped a notice of intent to withdraw its licence to admit foreigners, its predominantly Indian student community was portrayed in the media as innocent victims of an unscrupulous, profit-pursuing institution. UNVA, 90% of whose 2,400 students were Indians and mainly from Andhra Pradesh, was the second American university with a large concentration of Indian students to be raided this year.
In January, California-based Tri-Valley University (TVU), another unaccredited school where a majority of students were Indians, was raided and shut down by immigration and customs enforcement officials for alleged immigration fraud. Federal officials forced Indian students of TVU to wear radio-tracking devices on their ankles to monitor their movements—a move that raised outrage back home.
Also See | Overseas Lessons (PDF)
Yet, inquiries by Mint show that far from being innocent victims, Indian students may have known what they were letting themselves in for, even if they committed no crime, according to some experts.
Interviews with former UNVA and TVU students, and postings on the Internet and social networking sites and forums, indicate that students may have intentionally selected these universities, preferring schools known to be lax in marking attendance, with extensive online coursework, and questionable use of “curricular practical training”, or CPT, a form of work authorization available in select programmes of study that enabled them to work longer hours in off-campus, part-time jobs.
In UNVA community discussion forums on the social network Orkut, students were more inquisitive about the varsity’s leniency in allowing students to work full-time outside the campus—an activity prohibited on a US student visa.
A closer look at similarities between UNVA and TVU, and additional evidence unearthed during investigations by US newspapers, indicate that rather than being exceptions, such schools may be part of a growing number of unaccredited, for-profit colleges of questionable educational quality that make money from international student demand to work full-time in the US by exploiting loopholes in regulations governing student visa use.
“I don’t think these guys were misled or they didn’t know such kind of stuff,” said Narayanan Ramaswamy, executive director, education services, at KPMG Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd.
“It’s this fascination for US, US education and the peer pressure that it creates that led them to this situation. If somebody is knowledgeable enough to go to foreign universities for studying, they would definitely know how to check the background of an institute and check with multiple people,” he said.
A growing racket?
In the official complaint filed against TVU, the Department of Homeland Security accused Susan Xiao-Ping, the school’s founder, of participating in an “illegal scheme to defraud the United States” by obtaining permission to sponsor and admit foreign students and “fraudelently issuing visa-related documents to aliens in exchange for tuition and fees”.
Additional transgressions included the alleged falsification of student attendance records and transcripts, submitting false information regarding students’ residences, means of support and courses of study.
The Student Exchange Visitor Programe (SEVP) certification of UNVA that was temporarily put on hold on 28 July was, however, restored on 11 August, according to a document posted on the university’s website. UNVA officials did not respond to telephone calls and emails from this newspaper.
Central to the business model of TVU was its apparent misuse of CPT, a form of temporary work authorization issued to F-1 (student) visa holders under certain circumstances.
Such students are permitted to take full-time paid internships, cooperative education, and paid practicum so long as these are an “integral part of an established curriculum and... directly related to the student’s major area of study”.
Students in mainstream universities generally only qualify for CPT after they have completed one full year of study in programmes that require hands-on, for-credit work experience for graduation—such as nursing and medical programmes, teachers’ certification programmes or courses in clinical psychology.
However, many of the students from both TVU and UNVA were using CPT soon after enrolment, according to student interviews and discussions by students on online forums.
One online consulting company, StudyAbroadPlus, advertises a vast array of “paid internships” for various US Master’s programmes in positions with titles such as “retail clerk”, “cashier”, and “retail sales”, at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Macy’s Inc., RadioShack Corp., Baskin-Robbins and grocery chain FoodForLess among others.
The number posted on the website for StudyAbroadPlus connected to a company that refused to identify itself, and claimed never to have heard of the organization. StudyAbroadPlus did not reply to Mint’s emails.
Two recent investigations published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, a US publication, and the San Jose Chronicle, a Silicon Valley newspaper, identified several other schools across the US that have similar business models to TVU and UNVA. They included Herguan University (the former employer of TVU’s founder, Susan Xiao Ping), and the International Technological University (ITU). In a telephone call from the US, one student said both Herguan University and ITU have since become stringent with their academic process.
Online postings by Tri-Valley students indicate that many students were aware of the situation they were getting into. In fact, many selected the university not for its educational value, but the opportunities for off-campus work. Some students even became recruiters, accepting payment for each new student they brought to the school. On 7 January, days before the swoop by federal authorities on TVU, a person who goes by the handle Guru Guru posted this on an Orkut forum: “University name is Trivalley university, it is located at pleasanton, california. here classes are online so you don’t have to relocate, university offers CPT so you can work legally 40 hrs as full time. they charge only $100 (Rs.4,700) for CPT... you don’t have to worry about the course work, they will give you good grades. By using CPT you can work full time so we will help you in your desired software technology.”
Earn while you learn
Orkut user Vinod Babu, claiming to represent a firm named Lorvin Overseas, tried to entice prospective students in a thread in August 2010.
“As you know that most of the Universities in USA give legal permission of 10-20 working hours per week, so Students looking for part time jobs in gas stations and motels they hardly earn $6 to $7 per hr. But there are few Universities like UNIVERSITY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA which gives legal permission to work 40 hrs a week,” he said. “So that u can work full time in IT firm we can help u in getting Free Admission in the University and job assistance... Earn while you learn.”
Other postings indicate that students were paid $400 for every successful referral made. “hey guyz we get money ($400) if we refer a frnd to this university,” S.K.N. Reddy wrote in a June 2010 posting. “If you guyz who know abt the university and transfering with out any reference jsz keep my name. we can share the money. $100 for me $300 for you,” he wrote.
One consultant, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said only about 100 of the 1,500 Indian students who attended TVU actually secured a visa based on direct admission offers by the univesity. The rest obtained F-1 visas based on I-20 student forms from other, accredited universities, and then transferred.
The drive to enrol in programmes that offer such questionable “work-study” opportunities seems to be particularly strong in Andhra Pradesh, which was recently named a “visa fraud hub” of India by the US Consulate, along with Gujarat and Punjab, according to a WikiLeaks cable released in April to The Hindu. In the cases of both TVU and UNVA, the bulk of the students came from Andhra Pradesh—some 1,500 and 2,000, respectively.
Ashwini, who recently graduated from a university in the US and wants to be identified by only his first name, says the accreditation status of a university isn’t always the top priority for students from Andhra Pradesh.
“Here in the US, it is very different from India. Nobody bothers about your degree here. All they care about is your work experience,” he said over the telephone. “Basically, there is not much difference between a good university and an average university,” he explained. “They (employers) give you the same salary regardless of where you come from, and most people go through consultancies for the same jobs. What is the point in going to big universities and paying such huge fees,” he said.
According to Ashwini, the reason some Indian students opt for universities such as TVU and UNVA was because they can pay their own fees. As few employers check on the accreditation of US institutions, their alumni still manage to find jobs.
“I think it is us (Indians) who are taking advantage of the loopholes in their (US) system,” said Ashwini.
This is the first of a two-part series on unaccredited, for-profit schools. Next: unscrupulous education consultants.