• August 27, 2014

Little-Known Colleges Exploit Visa Loopholes to Make Millions Off Foreign Students

5729-trivalley

Karen Kasmauski for The Chronicle

A federal raid on Tri-Valley U., which investigators say took foreign students’ money in exchange for enabling them to work, has put the university’s 1,500 students in limbo. Above, four students wait to be interrogated by immigration agents at an office in Northern Virginia.

Enlarge Image
close 5729-trivalley

Karen Kasmauski for The Chronicle

A federal raid on Tri-Valley U., which investigators say took foreign students’ money in exchange for enabling them to work, has put the university’s 1,500 students in limbo. Above, four students wait to be interrogated by immigration agents at an office in Northern Virginia.

Early on a Friday morning, four college students stand shivering in the parking lot of an office complex in Sterling, Va. The building itself is unremarkable, red brick and dark glass, but security cameras are bolted to the walls, cement posts line the perimeter, and coils of concertina wire surround the trash bins. This is a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The students arrived more than an hour early for their appointment. They haven't slept or eaten in two days, passing time instead by obsessively organizing their documents and drinking cup after cup of strong black tea. Their eyelids are at half- mast, their hands shoved in jacket pockets. They are all Indian, all from the city of Hyderabad, and all possibly in deep trouble.

These students, like roughly 1,500 others from India, were enrolled at Tri-Valley University, a California institution that was raided by federal agents in January. The government seized property, threatened to deport students, and in legal filings called Tri-Valley a "sham university" that admitted and collected tuition from foreign students but didn't require them to attend class. (The president of Tri-Valley, Susan Xiao-Ping Su, denies the charges.) Many students allegedly worked full-time, low-level retail jobs—in one case, at a 7-Eleven in New Jersey—that were passed off as career training so they could be employed while on student visas. The university listed 553 students as living in a single two-bedroom apartment near the college; in fact, students were spread out across the country, from Texas to Illinois to Maryland.

As the students move inside and await their interview, a deliveryman wheels in a hand truck stacked with nine boxes of .44-caliber ammunition. On a table nearby rests a brochure titled "Targeting Terrorists," which features the famous image of Mohammed Atta breezing through airport security. When an agent emerges and asks who is going to be first, the four students stare at the carpet. "Come on," the agent says, trying to break the tension. "No one is going to beat you with a rubber hose."

The joke does not go over well.

The raid on Tri-Valley received limited attention in the United States, but it was and remains a big story in India, where newspapers and television shows portray U.S. officials as callous, and oversight of the student-visa program as incompetent. After weeks of bad publicity, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton felt compelled to assure Indian officials that the situation would be resolved fairly. Meanwhile, immigration officials have pointed to the shuttering of Tri-Valley as proof of their vigilance.

But a Chronicle investigation suggests that Tri-Valley is only the beginning. Other colleges—most of them unaccredited—exploit byzantine federal regulations, enrolling almost exclusively foreign students and charging them upward of $3,000 for a chance to work legally in the United States. They flourish in California and Virginia, where regulations are lax, and many of their practices—for instance, holding some classes on only three weekends per semester—are unconventional, to say the least. These colleges usher in thousands of foreign students and generate millions of dollars in profits because they have the power, bestowed by the U.S. government, to help students get visas.

While these institutions are well-known among Indian students looking to work full time, they have managed to go mostly unnoticed in the United States. That anonymity is just fine with Daniel Ho, the owner of the University of Northern Virginia, an unaccredited college that has called itself the most popular American university for Indian students. Says Mr. Ho: "We don't want people to know us."

Too Good to Be True

Visitors to Tri-Valley University's Web site are told of the "championship golf courses and fine vineyards" that surround the campus in Pleasanton, outside San Francisco, not to mention the "gentle hills" and "historical oaks." Students will receive "fluent and skilful [sic] capability of practical application tool." In a section listing reasons to attend Tri-Valley, supposedly the most frequent comment from students is "It seems too good to be true, but it is very TRUE!"

According to immigration officials, Tri-Valley was too good to be true. The federal complaint against the university accuses Susan Xiao-Ping Su, Tri-Valley's president and founder, of running a scheme that charged students tuition but didn't make them attend class. In essence, the complaint says, Ms. Su was selling permission to live and work in the United States on student visas. Ms. Su denies this, and a number of former Tri-Valley students say they were taking classes and believed the university was legitimate.

But even a cursory examination of Tri-Valley reveals problems. The Web site is rife with misspellings, creative grammar, and apparent untruths. It says, for example, that the university is accredited by the International Association of Bible Colleges and Seminaries, but an official there said Tri-Valley was never a member and that the association doesn't offer accreditation. Purported faculty members who appear on Tri-Valley's Web site say they never taught there. One of the four members of the university's advisory board, Sung Hu, a professor of electrical engineering at San Francisco State University, say that while he accepted an invitation from Ms. Su to be an adviser years ago, the board had never met.

How could such a transparently troubled institution become certified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enroll international students? As Tri-Valley officials discovered, loopholes and vague wording in the rules make it relatively easy for an upstart university to get approval.

While it lacked accreditation, the university says that it met an alternative measure of quality: Its credits were accepted by three other accredited colleges. Federal officials did not find out until more than a year after it approved Tri-Valley in 2009 that two of those three colleges denied ever having had such agreements, the government's lawsuit says. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to comment on Tri-Valley's certification, citing the open investigation.)

Federal officials conducted a site visit at Tri-Valley to ensure that the college was real. But federal guidelines say the certification visit need take only two to three hours, and some educators called such appraisals, often conducted by contractors, superficial. What's more, California lawmakers had allowed a law authorizing a state agency with oversight of for-profit colleges to expire, leaving no one on the ground to monitor Tri-Valley. On a site visit in 2008, federal officials found the college, housed in a pedestrian-looking office, had capacity for about 30 students. By the end of last year, Tri-Valley had enrolled 1,500, the complaint says.

The university was able to absorb such a huge number of students, the complaint alleges, by granting them the right to take virtually all of their coursework online, despite a federal regulation that restricts foreign students from taking more than one online course at a time.

The rush of Indian students to such a new college would have raised concerns among American consular officials in India if they had seen a flood of visa requests from admitted Tri-Valley students. But the university exploited a rule that allows students to gain admission to one college, secure a visa, then transfer to another without ever setting foot on the first campus. The Indian government found that only 100 students had been granted visas directly from U.S. Consulates in India to attend Tri-Valley.

The chinks in the student-visa system reflect its unusual history. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, designed to better track foreign students in the United States, was hastily approved as part of the USA Patriot Act. In creating Sevis, as it's known, lawmakers adopted existing language in which accreditation had never been required for a school or college to admit foreign students, even though it is necessary to participate in other programs, like federal financial aid. The focus was—and still is—on keeping terrorists, not questionable colleges, out of the higher-education system.

In recruiting Indian students, Tri-Valley discovered what others already knew: That India is ripe for exploiting Sevis loopholes, in part because of the sheer number of students there who want to come to the United States. Indians have also proved receptive to these pitches because, although the country has a burgeoning middle class, many of its students still need to work to afford an American university degree.

Tri-Valley became very successful very quickly. The university was started with a $5,000 investment in 2008 and approved by the government to admit international students a year later. By 2010, it was bringing in more than $4-million, according to government estimates—though if Ms. Su's claim of 5,000 students and alumni is accurate, the revenue may have been much higher. Ms. Su had upgraded her lifestyle in accordance with the university's newfound affluence. She purchased a 6,384-square-foot house in December for $1.8-million and made the 15-minute drive to Tri-Valley's headquarters in a Mercedes-Benz.

Before she started the university, Ms. Su seemed like a young academic on the rise. In 2001, she earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, and she published articles in a number of peer-reviewed journals. On the Tri-Valley Web site, it's explained that Ms. Su was "traumatized by a bright dream" in which God asked her to created "the 24 degree program," symbolized by the 24 vertebrae of the human spine. She has not disguised her anger over the closing of the university, calling it "very dreadful" in an e-mail to The Chronicle and comparing the government's actions to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

One Degree of Separation

Ms. Su may well have gotten the idea to start Tri-Valley from her former employer, Herguan University, where she worked as an adjunct faculty member. The two Silicon Valley colleges share many similarities: They are unaccredited, enroll mostly Indian students, and, until recently, allowed students to spend most of their time working outside California.

For a college that says it enrolls about 450 students, the Sunnyvale campus of Herguan, housed in a large, two-story office building, feels eerily unoccupied. There are mazelike hallways of unused classrooms, very little furniture, and a library with mostly empty shelves. On a recent weekday evening, when most classes are supposed to be scheduled, a single class was being held.

The college, which offers business and computer-science degrees, was founded on the principles of the Herguan Universe Theory, which seeks to explain the workings of the human body, the evolution of all living creatures, and the origin of the universe, according to the creator of the theory and the college's president, Ying Qiu Wang. During an interview at the college, Mr. Wang held up a book with a galaxy on the cover and said that it contained the secrets of the universe and the keys to the college's success. He also invited a reporter to become a Herguan student.

The real key to Herguan's success, however, lies in the same formula that made Tri-Valley so profitable. In 2008 the college was granted federal approval to accept foreign students. Like Tri-Valley, Herguan submitted to immigration authorities letters from three accredited colleges promising to accept its course credits. A Herguan official pointed to two colleges that accept its credits, Silicon Valley University and Northwestern Polytechnic University.

But representatives at those colleges say they never wrote such a letter. And Mikhail Brodsky, president of Lincoln University, an accredited college in Oakland, said Herguan officials offered to write him a check in return for his college's support. (Herguan officials did not respond to requests for comment on that accusation).

Last semester, most Herguan students worked full-time jobs outside California while enrolled in online classes, according to Jerry Wang, Herguan's chief executive. The arrangement would appear to violate a federal requirement that foreign students must be full-time students and may not take more than one online class per semester. But Mr. Wang said he considers students' bosses temporary Herguan faculty members. When students work in New York, Virginia, and other states, they earn academic credit for what are technically considered on-campus internship classes, he explained.

Four current or former Herguan employees said that failing students have routinely been given passing grades in exchange for paying extra money. In a July e-mail reviewed by The Chronicle, Mr. Wang allows one student living in Chicago to earn three credits in return for paying $225 and taking a single online test. Numerous follow up calls to Herguan administrators over several weeks were not returned.

Herguan's methods have drawn the attention of federal officials, who visited the campus in November. On December 1, Mr. Wang e-mailed all Herguan students to say they were required to move to California within a week and take in-person classes, or else the college would move to terminate their student visas. The message blamed the decision on widespread cheating by online Herguan students.

The instructions were met with anger and disbelief. "It's not possible for many of us to go to California in such short notice," one student, Navaneetha Myaka, e-mailed her computer-science class. A week later, Mr. Wang apologized and offered students $500 if they came back for just six days of class. But the damage was done. Mr. Wang says a quarter of Herguan's students have since transferred to other colleges.

Some of them enrolled in International Technological University, just down the road from Herguan.

The college opened in 1994 with the goal of becoming the largest university in the world. It had a rough start, losing its accreditation, nearly going bankrupt, and dwindling, by 2006, to a mere 18 students.

Then officials hit upon on a new strategy: promising foreign students that they could work full-time jobs off-campus as soon as they arrived. They also offered existing students a $500 tuition rebate for each new student they referred. Business took off.

The college gained a reputation in online forums used by Indian students as a good place to go to extend a student visa, or to get a job in lieu of obtaining an H-1B visa, which typically allows college-educated professionals to work in the United States for three years. Enrollment has since jumped to more than 1,500 students—94 percent from India—and the college has become very profitable. ITU's provost, Gerald A. Cory, earned $445,832 in 2009, more than was earned by the provosts of Yale, Brown, or Berkeley.

Many ITU students have an unusual schedule: They attend each class only three weekends per semester, all day Saturday and Sunday. That allows some of them to work full-time jobs in New York, Ohio, and other states and fly back to California when needed. They earn academic credit for the jobs, as well as the classes, and ITU considers them full-time students.

Weekend-only students can gain valuable work skills that traditional colleges often ignore, says Mikel Duffy, the college's associate vice president. He says college officials explained all this to federal investigators when they showed up unannounced late last year, shortly before they shut down Tri-Valley.

The investigators seemed to leave satisfied, Mr. Duffy says, and ITU continues to thrive. On a recent day in February, scores of Indian students jostled for space at ITU's registration desk, checks and paperwork in hand. Signed photos of former American presidents lined the walls. The prospective students were friendly but nervous; many of them were trying to transfer from Tri-Valley.

Unlike Tri-Valley, Mr. Duffy explains, ITU, which offers mainly computer-science and M.B.A. programs, has never offered any online classes because it would be too easy to violate federal rules.

But ITU's own Web site mentioned an online M.B.A. course as recently as July 2008, and some students continue to take classes entirely online, according to interviews with professors, recruiters, and students.

Tom Taylor, who teaches graduate-level business courses at the college, says some of his students have lived in other parts of the country and use a "cybercampus" to take tests and submit final projects. "I have had students outside California, but I hold them to high standards," Mr. Taylor says.

Mr. Duffy says students have, at times, mistaken ITU's weekend classes for online classes, but that attendance is mandatory. In fact, in order to accommodate the college's growth, he says, the campus is moving this month to a larger building in downtown San Jose, across the street from tech giant Adobe Systems.

"It's Silicon Valley," Mr. Duffy says. "This is how start-ups are born."

$10-Million a Year

More than 30 students are squeezed into a classroom at the University of Northern Virginia, located in a series of office buildings in the suburbs of Washington. Soft drinks have been provided, along with bags of chips, a bowl of salsa, and dozens of cupcakes. But the students, all of them Indian, aren't interested in the snacks. They have heard about the federal raid at Tri-Valley and have one question: Will their university be next?

In an attempt to reassure them, Northern Virginia's chancellor, David V. Lee, explains how the university was extremely careful to follow regulations. He concedes that there had been trouble in the past. A recruiter working for the college in India was "throwing I-20's up into the air and letting the wind blow them around," Mr. Lee tells the students. He clarifies later that the recruiter was encouraging applicants to falsify the I-20 immigration documents so they could come to the United States. That recruiter, he says, was let go.

The students seem unsatisfied, grilling officials on the details of the university's compliance with immigration law. Their suspicions are understandable: Northern Virginia's business model looks a lot like Tri-Valley's.

The heart of that model, according to Daniel Ho, its founder and the majority owner, is its ability to enroll foreign students in the United States. Nearly all of its students are here on visas, and the vast majority are from India. Like Tri-Valley, Northern Virginia has students who live in other states, some as far away as New York and Ohio, but university officials insist that, unlike Tri-Valley, those students—most of whom study computer science or business administration—commute regularly to Virginia to attend classes.

Still, much of how the university operates remains unclear. When asked how many students it has, Mr. Lee answers "between 1,000 and 2,000." According to Virginia government records, the university had 1,216 students this past fall, but that doesn't take into account the thousands of students working toward Northern Virginia degrees overseas.

How many other so-called partner institutions award University of Northern Virginia degrees? Mr. Lee says the number is four. Mr. Ho says it's more than 20, though he doesn't know the exact figure. He says the university graduates students everywhere in the world except for South America and Australia. They have, according to Mr. Ho, more than 2,000 students in China alone.

"We are very big," Mr. Ho says with understandable pride.

Daniel Ho is an engaging, energetic presence who's in his mid-50s but seems younger. He is also an entrepreneur with a hand in multiple businesses. Recently he sat down with a reporter in his corner office at UNVA, offering his guest lemon tea and imported pineapple pastries. Mr. Ho is knowledgeable about a range of foodstuffs, in part because he owns three grocery stores in the Washington metropolitan area. The headquarters of his grocery business, Super Q Mart International Food, is in the same building as the university.

Until 2008, UNVA was accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which is federally recognized. That accreditation was revoked, though neither the university nor the council would say why. The university now claims accreditation from the little-known American University Accreditation Council, which is not recognized by the Department of Education. The accreditor, however, has a professional-looking Web site featuring a photograph of new graduates, dressed in caps and gowns, holding their diplomas aloft in front of a billowing American flag. The site also has a photo of a modern office building, presumably its headquarters.

But drive to the address on the contact page and instead you'll find a bustling auto-body repair shop. That shop, it turns out, is owned by Gary Zhu, acting chairman of the board at UNVA. Reached at the Szechuan-style restaurant he also owns, Mr. Zhu said he's never attended a board meeting held by American University Accreditation Council, though he did agree to serve on the board. When asked who runs the accreditor, he named Mr. Ho.

Mr. Ho says that's not true. When told that the electronic file containing the accreditor's by-laws appears to have been created by him in July 2009, Mr. Ho acknowledges writing the by-laws but says that was the extent of his involvement. He says he hasn't been in touch with his university's accreditor in years and can't name anyone who works there. He is surprised to learn that the headquarters was an auto-body repair shop.

The university says that 357 foreign students are working while attending Northern Virginia; four of those students work in the accounting department at Mr. Ho's grocery business. While he won't say exactly how much his university earns, he hints that revenue is well above $10-million a year.

"It is very profitable," Mr. Ho says, leaning back in his chair. "Very profitable."

So who is regulating UNVA? In granting approval to admit international students, the federal government relies, in part, on an individual state's certification that a college meets its requirements to operate.

But even Mr. Ho admits that the agency in Virginia that oversees colleges is "not tough," though he contends that California is even more lenient. Besides, according to Virginia officials, the state has no authority over the programs the university runs outside its borders. When asked if he could simply sell degrees overseas, Mr. Ho responds, "absolutely" but argues vigorously that he would never endanger his reputation by doing so.

"I can sell degrees. I can sell diplomas. But I won't," he says. "Who's going to supervise me, control me? Myself."

The Godfather of 'Work Study'

Zhi Zhang never planned to work at Wal-Mart. But when she first arrived at Lincoln University, in Oakland, Calif., to earn a master's degree in business administration, she applied for every job she could find. At her first job, running a cash register at a Six Flags gift shop, most of her colleagues were high-school students. When a manager from Wal-Mart called, she jumped at the opportunity to get a reliable full-time job.

Ms. Zhang had earned a bachelor's degree in telecommunications engineering from Sun Yat-Sen University, ranked as one of the top colleges in China. She says she wanted to study and work in the United States to improve her career prospects when she returned to China, and she chose Lincoln because it was easy to gain admission and close to San Francisco.

Ms. Zhang was unimpressed by Lincoln when she arrived. The college, unlike Tri-Valley, is accredited and holds regular classes. But it is a modest operation, offering a handful of mostly business degrees out of a former bank building in downtown Oakland. Open spaces have been converted to three floors of offices, classrooms, and a student center in the basement.

"To be honest, the first day I saw the campus, I was thinking: Wow, even my primary school is bigger than that," Ms. Zhang said.

She spent her first months behind a Wal-Mart cash register in utter confusion. Her English was poor, she says, and the customers asked for items that don't exist in China: spaghetti, cheese, and endless canned food. "Wal-Mart customers are not very patient, actually," Ms. Zhang says. She remembers wandering down the aisles memorizing the names of obscure tinned meats. But after three months she was promoted to a customer-service manager.

Ms. Zhang is authorized to work in the United States through Curricular Practical Training, the same program that Herguan, ITU, and other colleges use to allow foreign students to take off-campus jobs. The training was designed as a way to give students practical internship experience that is "integral" or "directly related" to their areas of study, according to federal regulations.

Without such work authorization, educators say, foreign students wouldn't be able to enroll in majors with hands-on requirements, like nursing, and could be at a disadvantage compared with their American peers in competing for résumé-burnishing internships.

The federal government leaves it to colleges to determine what kind of training is integral to a student's course of study and where they can work. Its main requirement is that students complete a full academic year before starting to work.

Most accredited colleges interpret CPT quite narrowly, allowing it in only a small number of degree programs or with strict academic-adviser approval and supervision: Just 2 percent of Portland State University's international students are currently authorized for Curricular Practical Training, and at Florida Atlantic University, a mere dozen students, out of a foreign-student body of 650, are approved to work this semester.

While college officials worry that they could overstep the intentions of the CPT program, they don't want to change the regulation to give U.S. Immigration more say.

"Historically, the federal government doesn't regulate curriculum, least of all the Department of Homeland Security," says Victor C. Johnson, senior adviser for public policy at Nafsa: Association of International Educators. "Let's fix other things first."

But the vagueness of the rule has opened the door to interpretations that few institutions say they would endorse. Tri-Valley and others allowed graduate students to begin working full-time jobs immediately. They also have very flexible definitions of relevant work experience. Lincoln officials say Ms. Zhang's work at Wal-Mart gives her management experience related to her M.B.A. Tri-Valley approved its students to work at a dollar store and a tobacco shop. Herguan officials say it would be fine for a student to manage a convenience store.

Curricular Practical Training has been an option for colleges for many years, but it has been only in the last few years that some colleges have built their business on the promise that students can work more than they go to class.

How did institutions as far away as California and Virginia come up with such an idea roughly around the same time? They listened to Fred Brandenfels.

A dozen years ago, Mr. Brandenfels, a retired lawyer in Oregon, was perusing student-visa regulations when he noticed that a handful of colleges offered CPT to graduate students from the get-go, making use of an exception to the rule that requires students to spend a year in college before they can work off-campus. The programs were in areas like nursing and teaching, and they required internships from the start of instruction.

Mr. Brandenfels wondered if such "work mandatory" programs could apply to fields like computer science that are popular with foreign students interested in hands-on training. The answer, from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which then oversaw student-visa issues, was yes.

Mr. Brandenfels became a kind of godfather of CPT-mandatory institutions, counseling some dozen colleges on how to set up academic programs or courses in which work is required, mostly—following the dot-com bust—in business. His company, HTIR Work-Study USA, has advised the University of Northern Virginia. It also maintains a network of roughly 60 international recruiters and sends students—including a quarter of Lincoln's student body—to colleges in return for a portion of their tuition.

His students, he says, are carefully screened, serious about returning to their home countries, and wouldn't have a chance at an American education without the extra money their internships provide.

"We have the program everybody wants," he says. "It's like winning the lottery."

At the same time, Mr. Brandenfels calls HTIR "an international employment agency," and its Web site lists jobs students have held, from an engineer at an information-technology company to sales associates at Baskin-Robbins, Best Buy, and Target. All are relevant to students' degree programs, Mr. Brandenfels and his staff members say. Acceptable jobs for graduate business students include "anything that runs a business or has money exchanged," says Carmen Slack, an HTIR employment coordinator.

Many foreign students seem to agree. In more than a dozen interviews, students at these institutions say that an American degree, any American degree, will help them get a better job or earn a promotion back home. They say they choose these unaccredited colleges for their flexibility, their low cost, academic quality and because of the recommendations of other students from their home region. In online forums, students are more blunt: What they actually talk about is who will let them work "from Day 1."

'Ripe for Abuse'

Homeland-security officials say they are not blind to the existence of other Tri-Valleys, although they wouldn't comment on, or even confirm, current investigations. And they concede that regulations governing foreign-student employment are vulnerable to exploitation. "These areas are ripe for abuse," says a top administrator with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which monitors 10,300 schools and colleges that grant visa documents. "We look very closely."

Officials say that the agency is doing the best it can, given its resources and authority. An increase in Sevis fees—the system is entirely self-financed—will support the creation of a new enforcement unit focused solely on school and college violations and allow for the creation of a 60-person team of regionally based liaisons to act as contacts and more closely monitor colleges on the ground. Within the next couple of years, Homeland Security also hopes to roll out a new version of the Sevis database with greater data-tracking capabilities and fraud-detection features built in.

Still, the agency has limited latitude to act, even when it knows of problems. For example, officials have no authority to sanction colleges like Tri-Valley that continue to admit students above the number they were authorized to take in. The department can't even remove colleges from its list of certified institutions without going through a protracted withdrawal process—even when, as in Tri-Valley's case, fraud charges have been brought against them.

Such changes can be made only through a multiyear regulatory process—or through legislation. The Department of Homeland Security cannot lobby for legislative action and has not sought to require accreditation among Sevis participants. Indeed, the department has argued that such restrictions could harm small operators.

A group of U.S. senators this month asked Homeland Security officials to visit colleges deemed high risk within the next year. Legislators were also outraged at violations found during earlier raids on English-language schools. But they haven't changed the system.

Without eliminating the loopholes that allowed Tri-Valley to thrive, such as the ambiguity in work rules and the ease with which students can transfer from legitimate institutions to shoddy ones, shuttering one questionable college does little to prevent another from simply springing up in its place, competing for students who, at the very least, are interested in a cheaper and easier route to an American degree and an American job.

In some instances, government action may have exacerbated weaknesses. Until a few years ago, foreign students were required to spend a semester on the campus they first enrolled in before being allowed to transfer to another institution. But the Department of Homeland Security has changed those rules, allowing students to transfer immediately after securing their visas. Those students have become known among established colleges as "runners."

Chief among the system's shortcomings, many argue, is the fact that institutions like Tri-Valley can receive certification at all.

"That's where the inherent flaw is," says Ronald B. Cushing, director of international services at the University of Cincinnati. "What are we doing, closing down these institutions years later, when they shouldn't have been allowed in the system in the first place?"

Mr. Cushing and others say that only accredited colleges should be allowed to take in foreign students, or that certification should include a more-rigorous peer review, akin to accreditation. The retired police officers and FBI agents who conduct site visits, they say, aren't equipped to assess an institution's academic quality. But immigration officials have resisted efforts to require accreditation.

Bad actors affect more than just the students they enroll. The closing of Tri-Valley has raised doubts in India about the quality and oversight of American higher education, and further closures could damage that reputation even more. Indian newspapers painted the Tri-Valley students as victims. After some were made to wear electronic-monitoring devices, headlines screamed, "We are being treated like dogs" and "Uncle Sam wants you to wear a radio collar."

If families in India—which sends nearly 105,000 students to the United States each year—lose faith in the system, that could affect all higher-education institutions in the United States, not just the unaccredited operators.

The tensions are continuing to play out. When the four former Tri-Valley students were interrogated at the immigration office in Northern Virginia, federal agents seemed skeptical that they really were victims. They must have realized, one agent told them, that Tri-Valley wasn't what it claimed. The students responded that Tri-Valley had approval from U.S. immigration services. How were they supposed to know it wasn't operating within the bounds of the law if the government didn't?

After hours of questioning, one of the four was arrested and released on his own recognizance. He will have to appear in front of an immigration judge. After his release, the student seemed to be in shock, muttering that his life had been ruined. Once outside the building, he put his hand over his face and began to weep.

As for the three other former Tri-Valley students, one will be attending the University of Northern Virginia. The other two are enrolled at nearby University of North America, located on the second floor of a Wachovia bank building.

The university barely existed just a few months ago, with fewer than two dozen students. Now it may enroll as many as 75 former Tri-Valley students. It has three closet-size classrooms, a small computer lab, and a skeleton staff. The university has not applied for accreditation yet, though officials say they plan to soon.

It has, however, already been approved to admit foreign students by the federal government.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.