A federal investigation has faulted the Student Exchange and Visitor Program for its oversight of the student-visa system, saying it lacks a process to properly identify risk and prevent fraud.
In a report to Congress released on Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office found that the program, the arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that oversees the student-visa system and ensures that institutions and their international students are in compliance with the law, had failed to put in place controls to verify colleges' legitimacy to accept foreign students. And the agency, known as SEVP, does not always maintain records to confirm that institutions remain legally eligible to admit students from abroad, investigators found.
The Homeland Security Department is not contesting the GAO's conclusions. The department "takes very seriously its work ensuring fraud prevention and detection," Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman, said in a written statement, noting that SEVP has already begun to act on some of the report's recommendations.
Loopholes in student-visa law and inadequate oversight by SEVP were the subject of a Chronicle investigation into "sham" universities that enroll thousands of foreign students and allow them to work in the United States.
The new report buttresses The Chronicle's findings, saying that the Homeland Security Department "cannot provide reasonable assurance that schools were initially and continue to be eligible for certification" as part of the student-visa system.
Specifically, GAO investigators found that the agency does not consistently check evidence submitted by colleges in lieu of accreditation, which is not required for institutions to be part of the student-visa program. (Approximately 1,250 of the 10,000 schools and colleges approved to enroll foreign students do not have regional or national certification. Those institutions must attest that their credits are accepted by three accredited colleges.)
Instead, Homeland Security reviewers use their discretion to determine whether to conduct a thorough examination of such documents, based on "any suspicions of the letters' validity." The report blames the failure to look into paperwork submitted in lieu of accreditation for the approval of at least one fraudulent institution, Tri-Valley University in California. It later was shut down by federal officials, and its owner was charged with fraud.
"If SEVP's adjudicators had taken action to verify the letters, they may have discovered that letters were manufactured by Tri-Valley University school officials to feign legitimacy and eligibility," the report concludes.
The GAO report also faults SEVP for not properly maintaining paperwork. Of 50 case files of SEVP-certified institutions that were reviewed, 30 lacked at least one piece of required documentation, such as proof of school officials' citizenship or permanent residency. The agency was unable to produce any files for two of the 50 institutions.
Homeland Security officials told inspectors that some files had been lost or destroyed when the department assumed responsibility for the student-visa program, in 2003, but officials there could not estimate the number that had been misplaced.
What's more, the report says that while SEVP states that identifying and assessing potential risk factors are "critical to addressing potential vulnerabilities," the agency lacks processes to evaluate prior and suspected cases of noncompliance and fraud. While at least 88 institutions have been removed from the student-visa system for noncompliance since 2003, SEVP has not evaluated those withdrawals to determine potential commonalities among those that were cast out of the program.
"Without a process to analyze risks," the report concludes, it will difficult for the Homeland Security Department to "provide reasonable assurance that it is addressing high-risk vulnerabilities and minimizing noncompliance."
Inspectors also note that SEVP is far behind in its routine review of certified institutions. Under federal law, the agency was required to recertify all institutions by May 2004, and every two years thereafter, to monitor continued program eligibility. But it did not begin the first recertification cycle until May 2010; as of March 2012, SEVP had recertified just 1,870 schools and colleges, or 19 percent of those in the program.
The report offers several recommendations. They include consistently setting up and carrying out procedures for ensuring eligibility and for reviewing documents submitted in lieu of accreditation, and establishing a process for identifying all missing case files and records and for obtaining needed paperwork.
It also suggests that SEVP should put in place a process for monitoring state licensing and accreditation. The Chronicle found that questionable institutions had sprouted up particularly in states, like California and Virginia, where oversight is lax.
And the report says SEVP should develop a process to identify and assess risk and to allocate resources based on that analysis.
In a written response to the report, Jim M. Crumpacker, director of Homeland Security's GAO liaison office, said that the department concurred with the recommendations and was already working to act on them. SEVP, he noted, already has established a special compliance unit and put more money into investigating possible cases of fraud and abuse. During the past year, the agency analyzed nearly 50 percent more tips on possible school and college student-visa fraud than in the 2010 fiscal year.
By this fall, the department will have a risk-assessment process in place, Mr. Crumpacker wrote. SEVP also has instituted mandatory verification of documents submitted by unaccredited institutions.