‘Compromised Colleges’ Operating as Massive Visa Mills
Study highlights how the 'dregs' of higher education act as end run around immigration system
Despite losing accreditation in December, 55 colleges with questionable records of educational quality continue to have the ability to sponsor foreign students, according to an explosive new report by a Washington, D.C., think tank.
The 34-page report released Monday by the Center for Immigration Studies indicates that these “dregs of higher education” often rely heavily or nearly exclusively on foreign students seeking a legal way into the United States. Once in America, those students often can remain legally for up to three years after graduation though a program for science, technology, engineering and math students called Optional Practical Training (OPT). Eventually, others simply become illegal immigrants.
Many of the schools have high percentages of foreign students — some more than 95 percent — according to the report. David North, a Center for Immigrations Studies fellow and lead author of the report, said it is the business model of these “visa mills” to attract foreign students who can pay their own way.
"Many of them are quite specifically designed to do this … It's all quite on purpose," he said.
The 55 "compromised colleges" listed in the report are clustered in California, Florida and Virginia. All had been accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools before the Department of Education yanked its recognition of the agency.
"It should have been shut down a long time ago," said North.
The think tank report cites data collected by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) showing that the 35 percent graduation rate of schools that have been accredited by the agency is barely more than half the national average. Students at those schools also borrowed at much higher rates and were more likely to default on their student loans.
The colleges often have lax requirements and oversight of students, according to the report. Their presidents often are owners or part-owners of the institutions, which typically exist in office buildings rather than bucolic campuses associated with higher education. North said some institutions have classes only on weekends to accommodate the work schedules of their students.
The loss of accreditation would be a death sentence for most American institutions of higher learning, because it shuts off federal loans to students. But that is not an issue for schools that primarily serve foreign students, who are not eligible for federal loans anyway. The key, he said, is that not having accreditation does not affect the flow of foreign students.
"None of these colleges have [accreditation], and they all continue to accept foreign students."
"None of these colleges have [accreditation], and they all continue to accept foreign students," said North.
The colleges offer a viable pathway to America for foreigners who lack relatives or employers in the United States who could sponsor them for legal residency. The report indicates that some 40,000 foreign students attend the schools. It is impossible to know how many of them return home or become illegal immigrants because the federal government does not track such information.
Data show that students of the compromised colleges are heavy users of the Occupational Training Program. Students at one obscure school, Stratford University in Northern Virginia, received more OPT extensions from 2009 through 2013 than those at the eight Ivy League schools combined — 1,697 vs. 1,668.
North said hiring workers with OPT status is attractive to companies because — since they are considered students even if they no longer attend classes — companies are exempt from paying Social Security and Medicare taxes on them. OPT in total costs those programs $2.5 billion a year, he said.
Universities, even those that lack accreditation, can issue I-20 forms to prospective foreign students, who then can use those forms to apply for student visas at U.S. consulates in their home countries. The think tank report suggests there is a fair amount of fraud associated with those applications; the rejection rate for F-1 student visas nearly doubled between fiscal years 2013 and 2016.
But North said the State Department is not the primary agency responsible for preventing abuse of student visas. He said he blames "terrible oversight on the part of the Department of Homeland Security."
Congress could and should, added North, reform the entire OPT program and could tighten rules governing foreign students. But he also said the Department of Homeland Security has full authority to act on its own. He pointed out that, for instance, schools that no longer even have any students still appear on the list of institutions authorized to issue I-20 applications.
"The question of who is regarded as an acceptable university by the Department of Homeland Security is completely up to them," he said.
Often, state regulators have been more aggressive at reining in visa mills. North noted that the staff of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia has recommended the closure of the American College of Commerce and Technology in Falls Church. The council will make a decision this weekend.