Higher Education Fraud Comes in Two Different Packages, Part 1

By David North on January 8, 2018

Immigration-related higher-education fraud comes in two different packages and we saw both kinds over the past month.

The more common example is institutional fraud, where the whole enterprise is suspect, operating as a visa mill and designed to admit aliens who are usually much more interested in off-campus jobs than in on-campus education. An increasing number of good people, teachers, and some administrators, have noticed the fraud, quit their jobs (often at a major sacrifice), and told us about it.

Much less common are instances of a rogue employee in the foreign student office at a decent school who defrauds the system for his or her personal profit. One such employee was recently indicted.

Today's posting relates to an apparent visa mill; Part 2 will deal with a rogue employee who has worked at what looks like two honorable universities. All three institutions happen to be near one of the Great Lakes.

We are not naming the first school in question because we have not corroborated the former employee's claims — that person wishes to remain anonymous — but the person is credible and offers important insights into the way visa mills work.

Our informant writes:

The school in question is a private, for-profit school with locations in Chicago. The curriculum consists of two tracks: 1) the smaller vocational-technical arena attended by locals; and 2) a much larger ESL (English as a Second Language) program populated by foreign nationals on student visas. The latter program has become a means to an end for those attempting to maintain a "legal" foothold in the United States. The school is widely known for being a low-cost/low-academic-standard solution for such persons. On paper it looks like a legitimate educational facility, but in reality the requirements stipulated in the visa agreement are not being maintained.

The school is owned by two individuals, who work on the premises, but maintain a sense of anonymity with their employees and with the greater community of educators. They belong to no professional organizations and do not maintain an internet presence. Needless to say, internal cohesion is sorely lacking and most staff members report very low satisfaction levels with the positions they hold.

The school's student body is composed mainly of young adults in their 20s and 30s from India (the majority from Hyderabad), the Middle East (Jordan and Palestine), Central and East Asia (Vietnam and Thailand), Eastern Europe (Romania and Ukraine), and Venezuela. Most hold jobs within their ethnic communities in such places as restaurants, nail salons, small shops, gas stations, etc. This is a violation of their visa and school staff is well aware that they are so engaged. Many freely admit that a student visa is the only way to continue staying in the United States.

English classes are offered on a continuous, year-round basis of eight-week terms. A variety of classes are available to accommodate various learning levels. The core curriculum for each term consists of one "lecture" class (the core class of the program) and two "workshops". The various lecture classes run once a week (on different days according to level, seven days a week) for a full eight hours and 20 minutes. One instructor has the same group for the entire day, covering multiple chapters of the textbook. This system was designed to accommodate those who hold full-time jobs during the rest of the week. Incidentally, no lecture classes are held during week seven. This was a measure taken by the school to save money by cutting teacher work hours.

The rest of the term's time requirements are fulfilled in the form of "workshops", of which there are many. These lack substance and are mainly time fillers. There are no letter grades given for workshops, only a "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory". Each student must sign up for two workshops per week (four hours and 10 minutes each), but are made to attend only half of what they have enrolled in. As the "S" or "U" grade has no bearing on whether a learner passes or fails, most attendees don't take workshops seriously, stopping by for an hour or so and then leaving.

Those who wish to cram in a week's worth of requirements at one time can do their full-day lecture class and their workshop on the same day. Technically that would be from 8:40 a.m. to 9:20 p.m., but in reality the majority of learners come in and leave when they wish (another violation of the student visa requiring so many hours per week). The school makes instructors mark latecomers as though they have been present for the entire morning or afternoon session, thus an individual can arrive at 12:00 noon (with lunch being from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m.) and be marked "present" for the entire morning (four hours and 10 minutes).

Academic standards are lax. Most enrollees do minimal work and do not study or prepare. Assignments are often turned in late and many even try to get out of purchasing textbooks. Plagiarism is rampant for writing assignments. An instructor may give an "F" or take off points for the above infractions, but there is a very liberal appeals process whereby a learner can overturn a bad grade. The school actually encourages nominal make-up assignments to bring final scores up to a passing grade (which is only 60 percent). Sadly, well-qualified instructors have been let go for questioning the lack of established standards.

The school, like dozens of other, similar ones, was accredited by ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools), and only by that agency, until about a year ago. At that time ACICS, after a long process, was de-recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The school's website (unlike some others) mentions these facts. The school has been seeking a new accreditation through ACCET (Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training). Due to the school's questionable practices, however, one can't help but wonder how they are making themselves appear to be in compliance with accreditation standards.

In conclusion, this institute is a business in the guise of an educational facility. As a manager succinctly put it while chiding an instructor for "strict" measures against a student: "This is a business."

Editor's note: F-1 students at ESL schools are not eligible for either the Curricular Practical Training work permits, while studying, or, after graduation, those of Optional Practical Training, so the pattern often is to work illegally; F-1 students at other institutions are eligible for both CPT and OPT.