March 29, 2018

Grassley Attacks ACICS-Approved For-Profit Colleges As “Visa Mills”

Grassley Attacks ACICS-Approved For-Profit Colleges As "Visa Mills"

As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems to be moving toward restoring her department’s blessings on the discredited college accrediting body ACICS, a powerful Republican has sent a letter that cites tawdry practices at a number of ACICS-approved schools. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley has written to Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen seeking answers about U.S. colleges that he believes are “visa mills” that abuse or violate a federal program allowing foreign students to come to the United States for higher education programs.

Grassley charges that these colleges, many of them for-profit schools, are “spurious businesses” that “pose as education institutions in order to secure visas for tuition-paying foreign students” under the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). He writes that such schools “provide little or no educational benefit to those who pay tuition, instead acting as surreptitious employment agencies for aliens seeking to work in the United States.”

Foreign students participating in SEVP are able to obtain work permits, and Grassley charges that schools and students often violate the requirement that the jobs they take actually relate to a student’s studies; some students instead take jobs at gas stations, restaurants, and retail stores. He argues that the foreign students often get jobs that could be held by U.S. citizens. Grassley reports that in 2016, more than 79,000 foreign students overstayed their visas.

The senator asserts that Northern Virginia-based for-profit Stratford University, with about 3,300 students on 4 campuses, has approved more foreign students for one work program than all Ivy League schools combined.

Grassley’s tone is unfairly hostile to foreign students, many of whom do come to the U.S. for legitimate studies. His letter, released Monday, has gotten some pickup in conservative media and, just this afternoon, by the nativist Center for Immigration Studies, which has repeatedly attacked foreign student visas and which the Southern Poverty Law Center cites as a hate group.

But Grassley is correct that unscrupulous colleges are abusing the student visa program. He notes that the California Bay Area for-profit Herguan University was allowed to remain in SEVP nearly three years after its CEO was indicted for visa fraud; Homeland Security didn’t move to revoke the school’s SEVP approval until after the CEO pled guilty. Other schools called out by Grassley as sketchy visa mills include the Bay Area’s Tri-Valley University, Silicon Valley University, and Northwestern Polytechnic University, and Northern Virginia’s University of North America.

Grassley might also have mentioned Chicago’s for-profit Computer Systems Institute (CSI), a school we’ve covered before. The Obama Department of Education cut off federal student aid to CSI after it found extensive evidence of deceptive behavior regarding alleged employment of the school’s American graduates. Yet the school has carried on, and even expanded, fueled by enrollment of foreign students using SEVP.

Besides being labelled unscrupulous visa mills by Grassley, all of the schools he cites (except Tri-Valley), plus CSI, have something in common: all are, or until recently were, accredited by ACICS, an organization that the Department of Education, in the Obama administration, discarded as a recognized accreditor, because of ACICS’s long record of lax oversight of predatory for-profit colleges, many of which had long records of abusing students and have faced multiple law enforcement probes. Without recognition of ACICS by the Department of Education, the schools it accredits have faced a cutoff, presently set for June 2018, of federal grants and loans for U.S. students.

The Trump-DeVos Department of Education, which has essentially handed over policy to the worst for-profit actors, appears to be on a course to reinstate ACICS, a decision that could be accelerated by a federal judge’s determination last week that the Obama Department had improperly failed to consider certain evidence before making its 2016 decision. The judge sent the case back to DeVos for reconsideration of what the Obama administration had decided.

The evidence that some ACICS schools are abusing the student visa program should be one more reason to doubt that the accreditor has been doing its job. Whether Betsy DeVos will do anything about accountability for such abuses, even in the face of concerns raised by the powerful Senator Grassley, is another matter.