Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN, Jan 31, 2011, 12.16am IST
WASHINGTON: Hundreds of Indian students who have gotten scammed by a dodgy California-based university had it coming. Tri-Valley University (TVU) had a reputation as a “Diploma Mill” that offered a spurious route to employment and immigration in the US. Inquiring students and professionals knew about it, discussed it in immigration forums, and warned others about it.
But eager beavers looking for a short cut to emigrating to the US through a questionable academic route ignored the red flags. After US authorities busted the scam, an estimated 1500 students, some of them gullible victims, some of them scheming immigrant hopefuls, face financial loss, loss of credits, loss of time, loss of face, and in some cases, even face deportation.
Here’s how the scam unfolded: India, from among all countries, has been sending the maximum number of students to US colleges over the past decade – some 10,000 to 15,000 each year. Most aspiring students try and get into the top 50 schools, which have stringent qualifying standards, including exams such as GRE and GMAT, besides TOEFL, an English proficiency test. The process involves gaining admission on the basis of test scores, in lieu of which the university, if it accredited and complaint with US rules, sends an I-20 document to the accepted student, which he or she presents to the embassy or consulate in the home country to get an F-1 student visa.
But in recent years, several dodgy universities have come up which waive GRE/GMAT requirements as long as students can pay thousands of dollars up front in the form of various ‘fees.’ More pertinently, these colleges dubiously facilitate Optional Practical Training(OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT), the two routes to employment at the end of the college degree, from the first day of enrollment.
Typically, in recognized, well-regarded universities, all students must be enrolled as full-time students for a year before receiving CPT/OPT. For the hundreds of thousands of Indian students who have eventually become US citizens, OPT and CPT are the first steps to employment–based visa (usually H1-B), Green Card, and citizenship, in that order.
TVU and similar schools had a “well-earned” reputation of shortening the process by offering OPT/CPT from day one – which meant “students” could get on the employment track even as they began “college.” In fact, TVU didn’t even have a campus in the traditional sense. It had a solitary, sorry-looking building, bought in April 2010, which housed everything from administrative offices to classrooms, from which random lectures were transmitted over the internet to “students” across the US, including those working other jobs. Under current US law, students cannot take only online courses while on an F-1 status, a scam TVU managed to perpetrate.
Founded by Susan Xiao-Ping Su and run mainly by Chinese Christians, with a few Indians in the “faculty,” the school boasted that its mission “is to make Christian scientists, engineers, business leaders and lawyers for the glory of God, with both solid academic professionalism and Christian faith, therefore to live out Christ-like characters, value and compassion in the world, to make an impact and shine as its light.”
If that wasn’t enough to set off alarm bells, prospective students could have at least seen the writing on the wall – internet forums — had they bother to trawl any. In an exchange that began in April 2010, students, both prospective, inquiring ones, and those already committed to TVU, duked it out online about the university and its practices. “Has any one got any experience with Tri-Valley University?” inquired one person on an immigration forum. He had heard they offer “hassle free admission, gre, gmat not mandatory, tofel (sic) is pretty much the only requirement low semester fee, OPT, CPT from the day the course starts. no tests, no mandatory online classes, a perfect way to bypass the visa process!”
In no time, there were red flags galore. “TVU is NOT accredited, so you can NOT get a degree from them. Any ‘degree’ they issue is worthless,” wrote one forum member on May 19. “If you use a ‘degree’ from them for any immigration purpose, it would be fraud. You can also NOT use OPT or CPT from them. Any such use would be fraud.” Unperturbed, the inquirer wrote back: “the degrees are worthless, but i thought that its enough to get CPT.”
Other immigration forum members, some of them partisans and flaks for TVU, then argued about how if the university was not accredited, it could generate I-20, a document for prospective students that enables them to apply for and get F-1 student visa in their home country. “You are grasping at straws. Probably because you have signed up with them and now have been told that you got scammed. Scamming victims are often in denial…,” wrote a user named Jo1234, warning, “I think TVU will eventually get into trouble with authorities…Their “degrees” are worthless. If you try to use them for an H1 or a GC, you would be committing fraud. Spend your money with a real university, not these fraudsters.”
It took till January this year for US authorities to cotton on to the scam – or, to look at it charitably, to put together the manpower for a nationwide crackdown. Although TVU was based in Pleasanton, California, it’s ‘students’ were scattered throughout the country, from the East Coast to Midwest to Deep South. Many of them were illegally employed. Although it was allowed only 30 foreign admissions pending accreditation, TVU had managed to work the system to enroll more than 1500 students. Apparently, there were companies across the US which used TVU’s F-1 visa-based CPT/OPT to beat H1-B visa requirements, which regulate salary, insist on not replacing American workers etc.
On January 19, after raiding TVU, getting student records from the school, and shutting it down, immigration officials began knocking on the doors of TVU students across the country or serving NTAs (notice to appear) asking them to get in touch with the local office. In some cases, officials merely made preliminary inquiries. In others, students were interrogated for up to three hours. Some had their passports taken away, if they declined voluntary departure. And in rare cases, where officials found egregious violation of visa terms or questionable visas, students were shackled with electronic monitoring devices till further inquiries.
“It was terrifying,” said one student who asked not to be named. “Out of the blue, all our dreams came crashing down.”
But while there is the usual outrage and fire-spitting in India over the radio collar issue, it turns out that not all students are as gullible as was initially made out. Speaking on background, community leaders, attorneys, and even some students acknowledged that many people knew the whole process was questionable. One giveaway: According to representatives of the Telugu Association of North America (TANA), an estimated 95 per cent of the TVU admissions from India are from Andhra Pradesh, a fact that has prompted TANA to arrange legal representation for the students. “They are young kids whose future will be ruined. They are our people after all. We have to help them,” says TANA’s Jayaram Komati. According to one student, most victims paid up to $ 2800 per semester to Tri-Valley, some of them paying as much as $ 16,000 up front for a full course to obtain a shady degree.
The growing sense among officials and even the Indian community is that many students knew what they were getting into but still risked it. “They know what the rules are – problem is, some of them work within the Indian mentality that the rules are made to be avoided and that the government is a nuisance, not a power to be reckoned with,” Nandita Ruchandani, a New York-area immigration attorney who has dealt with such cases, told ToI. Still, many attorneys, some of them working pro bono, are offering to help the students. Two attorneys arranged by TANA in the Bay Area are now working on several Tri-Valley cases.
On Sunday morning TANA arranged for a conference call with immigration attorneys at which more than 200 affected students called in. Among the student gripes, how could the US government undermine the process initiated by a college which it recognized enough to allow it to generate F-1 visas? And if it was a sham university as authorities were now claiming, how and why did the US consulates in India issue the visas?
Meanwhile, a steamed up Indian government, aghast at the radio tagging of a few students, has sought to free them of the ignominy even as the more gullible victims are wondering whether to return to India or keep a foot in the academic door through an appeals process. “We are in a dilemma …Many students are afraid to go to immigration officers…they are taking away passports pending investigation, sometimes even for those going for voluntary self-departure,” a Minneapolis-based student told ToI. The student, who transferred to Tri-Valley from another university, found the Pleasanton school dodgy enough to request a transfer late last year. But she says other schools declined to accept Tri-Valley credits. Stuck in the quagmire, she has gone by the advice of US authorities and phoned into the hotline they have established to provide details of her case. She hasn’t heard back from them. It will be a long cold winter for many Indian students in the US.