A bipartisan group of U.S. senators plans to propose legislation aimed at preventing fraud in the student-visa system and weeding out sham colleges that enroll foreign students.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer and other lawmakers outlined the provisions of the bill during a hearing held on Tuesday by a Senate panel that oversees immigration and border-security issues. The bill would impose stiffer penalties on those who commit fraud by running bogus institutions, require that unaccredited schools and colleges in the visa system be visited by federal investigators annually, and ensure that academic institutions enrolling international students are certified by their home states, among other changes.
"These are much-needed steps that dramatically reduce fraud and increase confidence in our student-visa program," said Mr. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is chairman of the panel, the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. In addition to Senator Schumer, backers of the proposal include Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.
The panel met in the wake of a Government Accountability Office report released this month that found serious flaws within the Student Exchange and Visitor Program, the agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that operates the student-visa system and ensures that educational institutions and students are meeting federal rules. The report said that the agency, known as SEVP, had failed to put in place controls to verify colleges' legitimacy to enroll foreign students and that it does not always maintain adequate records to make sure that colleges are legally eligible to admit overseas students.
Lax oversight within the student-visa system was the subject of a Chronicle investigation into fraudulent universities that enroll thousands of foreign students and allow them to work in the United States.
Among other findings, the GAO report found that SEVP only recertified 19 percent of the schools and colleges that participate in the program as of March 2012. It was supposed to have recertified institutions by 2004 and every two years thereafter. But SEVP officials did not start the process until two years ago.
During the Senate hearing, John P. Woods, assistant director of the Homeland Security Department's national-security investigations division, admitted SEVP had a long way to go toward checking all the 10,000 or so institutions in the system. He said SEVP did not have adequate funds for the recertification effort to meet the original deadline. Since 2009, it has hired additional employees who are recertifying schools at a pace of 350 to 400 a month. The agency has now recertified 32 percent of the schools and colleges in the program, but it could take another two years to check all of them, he said.
Lawmakers peppered Mr. Woods with questions about how SEVP checks the educational quality of institutions, with Ms. Feinstein arguing that schools and colleges that are not accredited should be ineligible for 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, according to the GAO report. Those institutions must attest that their credits are accepted by three accredited colleges. However, the GAO report said SEVP does not consistently check evidence submitted by colleges in lieu of accreditation, a problem it said contributed to the approval of at least one fraudulent institution, Tri-Valley University, in California. That institution later was shut down by federal officials, and its owner was charged with fraud.
Mr. Schumer said he and other senators are considering including a provision in their bill that would exclude nonaccredited schools and colleges from the student-visa program unless they can better prove they offer quality educational programs.
Mr. Woods said that requiring accreditation would greatly reduce the risk of fraud and that Homeland Security officials are working with states to understand the differences in how schools and colleges are accredited nationally.