Real fake college edition

Why the government doesn’t do a better job policing sham colleges

For Visas, Perennial Problems

At Virginia International University, where nearly all the students are from overseas, plagarism is “rampant,” the courses are “patently deficient,” and “large numbers” of students lack adequate English proficiency, according to state regulators. Yet it ranks among the top 100 colleges in the country for the number of graduates who stay in the U.S. to work, through a program called optional practical training.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia moved this past week to shut down the likely visa mill.

That the council’s decision to begin administrative actions that could lead to VIU’s closure coincided with a new GAO report critical of the federal government’s ability to fight student-visa fraud was perversely apt: Both underscore how perennial the problems are that plague the student-visa system.

For one, when it comes to oversight, the system is built on a shaky foundation. Post-9/11 legislation setting it up didn’t even require that colleges have acceditation to enroll international students. After my reporting shone a spotlight on that loophole, Congress tried to enact a fix. While that bill didn’t ultimately become law, it effectively changed practice.

Instead, Virginia International is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. So, too, is Northwestern Polytechnic University, also under fire as a possible visa mill. And Silicon Valley University, which closed last year? Yup, ACICS accredited.

ACICS has been sharply criticized for its poor supervision of for-profit colleges serving American students. The Obama administration, in fact, revoked ACICS’ federal recognition, although Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently restored it.

Point being, it’s an open secret where the weak spots are, the lax enforcers. As Eric Kelderman, who has done great reporting on ACICS’ travails, noted:

You’d think that would result in federal authorities homing in on colleges that most fit the profile of sham schools. But Homeland Security officials are required by law to recertify each and every institution approved to admit international students every two years.

As of June 2018, there was a recertification backlog of 3,281 institutions. There’s the staff to handle less than half of the review workload, officials told the GAO. As a result, it’s commonplace for colleges to wait 12 to 18 months to be recertified.

In a chronically underfunded and understaffed agency, the requirement to focus on good actors inevitably draws time and attention away from the bad.

I called up Adam Julian, director of international student and scholar services and outreach at Appalachian State University. When colleges are caught in the backlog, they can’t make “substantive changes,” he told me. That means if a university adds a pharmacy degree or starts a new summer program during the lengthy and uncertain recertification window, well, too bad – it can’t admit any international students. At a time when colleges are trying to be especially nimble to attract students from abroad, that’s kind of crippling.

It doesn’t make sense, Julian said, for a research university to go through the same process as fly-by-nights:

“I don’t mean to sound frustrated, but this is frustrating.”

I was curious what Julian and Katie Tudini, who lead a NAFSA committee on international-student regulations, would make of a GAO recommendation to help combat fraud, to better train college officials to spot it. College officials are already well-attuned to signs of cheating, they told me. Added Tudini, the assistant vice provost for international student services at the University at Buffalo:

“Our schools don’t want us to be acting as law enforcement. We’re educators.”

Nevermind deputizing college administrators into an ad hoc student-visa constabulary. Federal officials already know, or should, where the problems in the system are. It’s a matter of better policing it.

Have thoughts about student visas or other issues you think I should be reporting on? Let me know in the comments or tweet me, @karinfischer.

Around the Globe

Saudis who criticize their their country while studying abroad can lose their scholarships, have their passports revoked, and face death threats or attempts to lure them back home, PBS NewsHour reports. The Saudi government denies it surveils its students or attempts to lure them back.

Canada’s federal budget proposal includes funds to send more students abroad and to step up overseas recruitment to Canadian universities.

An interesting nugget: The Trump administration is defending a lawsuit brought by American tech workers who say international students on OPT are stealing their jobs. I’d wondered how the administration would handle the long-running case.

Could a deal allow Central European University to stay in Hungary?

American computer science students demonstrate higher levels of skill than their counterparts in China, India, or Russia, according to a new study.

“It is our sincere hope that these actions, which we believe amount to racial profiling, will stop immediately”: Chinese-American scientists on concerns that rhetoric and policies are singling out students and scholars of Chinese descent.

It’s not about education, but this piece on how immigration courts lack interpreters for the rising number of migrants who speak indigenous Central American languages brought me up short.

Take a Listen

I’m an inveterate podcast listener, though I tend to gravitate toward long-form narrative or feminist analysis of The Bachelor. But if you want to be the nerdiest person rocking ear buds at the gym, let me recommend this recent episode of the Sinica podcast, exploring the issue of self-censorship among scholars of China.

It’s a fascinating discussion and one that I think has applicability both to academic engagement in other authoritarian countries and to those whose international connections aren’t necessarily centered around scholarship.

Here’s one observation, from Rory Truex, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton:

“Why are we calling it ‘self-censorship’? That’s in some sense putting the onus on the researcher and sort of blaming them, blaming the victim. We should be calling it what it is, which is censorship.”

For the smartest international-education news, in your in-box, every Monday morning, sign up the weekly latitude(s) newsletter.

A China Code

Human Rights Watch has released a 12-point code of conduct for colleges to adopt to counter potential Chinese government efforts to curtail academic freedom.

Among the recommendations, colleges should:

  • Promote policies that say classroom discussions should stay on campus and not be reported to foreign missions

  • Put in place mechanisms, such as an ombudsman to whom pressures or threats from the Chinese government can be reported

  • Actively track incidents of Chinese government harassment, surveillance, or threats on campus

  • Offer flexibility to students or scholars whose work in China could be curtailed due to Chinese government restrictions.

The human-rights group also calls for colleges to reject Confucius Institutes.

Intriguing research on study abroad? Best practices for international student services? I want to highlight what’s new and interesting in international education. Drop me a line at

And finally…

It’s March Madness time, and here at latitude(s), we bleed green, much to the consternation of my brother, a University of Michigan graduate.

I spent much of 2012 and 2013 on the Michigan State campus following a group of Chinese students through their freshman year. I got especially close to a 20-year-old from Zhengzhou named Mengshi. He was pensive and funny and he loved basketball. One winter night, I joined him in the stands at the Breslin Center. The game turned out to be a rollicking romp (sorry, Jeremy) over Michigan. And I finally got to see Mengshi relaxed, not worrying about his accent or his classes or making friends.

So, though he’s long graduated, I still celebrate March Madness for Mengshi.

’Til next week – Karin

For the best international education news and analysis, please subscribe to latitude(s). In this startup phase, I’ll be making the newsletter free; in the future, I’ll ask for a small fee to support quality journalism.