The US’s broken immigration system is helping two Kentucky Universities enroll thousands of students

Work while you study.
Work while you study.
Image: (AP/Gerry Broome)
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By day, Swamy works full-time as a software developer in New York City. Late at night and over the weekends he’s a full-time university student, taking courses online. The main reason he does both is, as he puts it, “so that I can keep working in the US.”

For the past two and half years, Swamy has been pursuing graduate degrees at the University of the Cumberlands, a private Baptist university in rural Kentucky. Quartz has decided to withhold Swamy’s last name. He has already completed the credit requirements for a master’s degree in information systems security, and is now working toward a PhD. During his time in the US, he has gotten three master’s degrees in information technology from three universities.

Swamy came to the US from India in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Upon completion of that program, he spent 18 months looking for a full-time job. By the time he found one, he had lost his authorization to work in the US. Getting a new work visa was difficult.

“I have to be in college to take the job,” he said.

That’s because the US’s student visa program allows him to work full-time while he studies. In fact, Swamy continued as a full-time student for the next five years.

Swamy is not alone. The rural Kentucky college that he’s enrolled in has seen a large influx of students from abroad, even as international enrollments at US universities overall have fallen. It’s no accident. Cumberlands and other universities have created programs that appeal to students like Swamy who are trying to stay working in the US through all legal means. The schools are benefitting from the US immigration system’s quirks, boosting enrollment by attracting people more interested in working in the US than receiving the education programs like these provide.

“People who’ve got themselves into the same situation are sharing it in online websites, Facebook groups,” said Swamy, as he described how he came to know of the program at Cumberlands. A curated list of such qualifying programs appeared in 2015 on a forum that connects foreign tech workers to potential employers.

A surge of visas to Kentucky schools

Nationwide, fewer international students came to the US last year. Thirty-two US states experienced a drop in international student population from March 2017 to March 2018. The other 18 states and Washington DC saw an increase. But Kentucky was an outlier. The international student population in Kentucky grew by more than 70%, or more than 6,200 students.

The dramatic change in Kentucky is partially because the state is not traditionally a popular destination for international students. The total number of international students in Kentucky (15,240 by March 2018) is small compared to those in New York (138,750 by March 2018), the state with the largest international student population.

The data show that the influx of students in Kentucky was predominantly from India. They’re pursuing master’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and account for about 95% of the total increase of international students in Kentucky from 2017 to 2018.

The spike in admissions came primarily from two universities: Swamy’s school—the University of the Cumberlands—and another private, rural Baptist school—Campbellsville University. Both launched new STEM master’s programs to cater to foreign students. Both set enrollment records in 2017.

An F-1 student visa becomes a work visa through “Curricular Practical Training”

The typical visa for a student in the US is known as the F-1. International students on F-1 visas face strict employment limitations. They are only allowed to take off-campus employment in specific circumstances, one of which the government calls “Curricular Practical Training” (CPT). Further restrictions mean that students can undertake CPT only after finishing a full academic year of study.

However, there’s an exception. If a school formulates its program so that off-campus employment is an “integral part of the established curriculum”, CPT can start at the beginning of the student’s first semester. This makes an F-1 as good as a work visa for students enrolled in certain programs.

The online programs at the two Kentucky universities are specially designed in this way, enabling foreign students to work from day one.

How the University of the Cumberlands program works for F-1 students

Total enrollment at the University of the Cumberlands was listed at 6,031 in 2015. In fall 2017, the university had more than 10,000 students according to a press release. That was the same semester it started offering three new online master’s degrees in information technology. In Spring 2018, total enrollment swelled to almost 12,000.

Jerry Jackson, the vice president for enrollment and communications at the University of Cumberlands, attributed the enrollment success to these masters programs, which allow international students to take classes anywhere in the US, come to the campus on just one weekend per semester, and work for companies in the US from the first day of the program.

“One weekend every term they show up on one of these campuses to study, and they get enough face-to-face time in the United States on an F-1 student visa,” said Jackson, when he described the design of the new program in a speech to the Southern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

To keep an F-1 visa, a graduate student has to maintain a full-time student status in the eyes of the university. This typically means taking classes equal to at least nine credit hours per semester, or an equivalent class load. In addition, only one class that does not require a student’s physical attendance can be counted towards how the school defines full-time.

The graduate programs offered at University of the Cumberlands meet both requirements: In a seven-credit-hour semester, students take one three-credit-hour class that’s entirely online, one three-credit-hour online class that meets in person during the weekend of the residency session, and a one-credit-hour class for their work training.

The residency weekend requirement makes it possible that foreign students can take two online classes while still complying with F-1 visa rules.

The university has opened satellite campuses in Washington, D.C., Seattle and Cincinnati, making it easier for the geographically dispersed student body to attend residency sessions.

Jackson declined Quartz’s interview request.

How the Campbellsville University program works for F-1 students

About two hours’ drive from the Cumberlands is Campbellsville University in central Kentucky. In a city of about 9,000, Campbellsville enrolled 5,000 students in March 2017. By the fall, enrollment had grown to 8,372.

Most of the growth came from its online master’s program, Master of Science in Information Technology and Management (MSITM). Keith Spears, the vice president of communications at the university told Quartz that the graduate programs in Campellsville’s School of Business, Economics, and Technology (which includes the MSITM program) currently enrolls 4,328 students. According to a brochure (pdf) posted earlier this year, the MSITM program alone enrolls more than 3,000 students.

The MSITM degree costs students about $17,000 over four semesters, according to Spears.

Just like the program at Cumberlands, MSITM is designed to allow international students to work full-time jobs while enrolled. Students are required to come to campus for three days of face-to-face classes at the beginning of each term.

Shanon Garrison, the vice president for enrollment services at University of Campbellsville, told a local business paper that “99% of the students in the course are native to India but live in and work for companies based in the US.”

Losing the H-1B lottery and going back to school

For Indian students in tech fields, these programs have a lot to offer: The flexibility to earn a salary while getting an advanced degree at a comparatively low cost, and for many, an option to stay in the US after losing the lottery for an H-1B work visa or the expiration of another type of work authorization.

“Part of why we are seeing a lot of people enrolling in programs that offer immediate CPT is because we have this ridiculously low cap on H-1Bs,” said Jennifer Minear, a Virginia-based immigration lawyer.

For the past five years, Swamy—the student at the Cumberlands—failed to get an H-1B visa through the US government’s lottery. More than 190,000 applicants competed for the 85,000 H-1B visas available in 2018. Getting one is a game of chance. Those who aren’t selected in the lottery may have to leave the country, unless they find another way to stay.

Losing the lottery is “very upsetting for both the employer and the students,” Minear said. Both “are counting on the employment relationship continuing.” But when that path is closed off, “It’s not surprising that students in that situation might gravitate to work in a graduate program that offers immediate CPT.”

Is it legal?

US Department of Homeland Security has shut down several institutions that created sham programs to attract foreigners looking for a way to work in the US. These so-called visa mills helped students obtain work authorization without offering a real course load.

The fact that the programs in the two Kentucky universities attract similar students as the sham schools doesn’t mean they’re conducting visa fraud. Students in both programs who spoke to Quartz raved about them, praising their affordability, flexibility and the quality of the training they provide.

At the core of the legal issue is whether or not any given school is a bona fide educational institution.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong or sketchy with having a program that’s in any way tailored to the international student population. Every school wants to have more international students on campus. In trying to attract them, they have to make sure their programs are something that F-1 students can attend,” said Meghan Barger, a senior paralegal at McCandlish Holton, a law firm based in Richmond, Virginia. She previously oversaw the international student programs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It is legally permissible for institutions to offer CPT to students, if that training is critical and essential to the program,” Minear said, “What’s not permissible is to create an educational program solely for the purpose of facilitating employment. If the job is part of the program, that’s ok. If that’s not part of the curriculum and the school is just basically creating a mill to allow people to work while they are waiting to play the lottery again next year, that would not be permissible.”

More than 8,700 schools in the US are certified through the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP) by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to issue visas to foreign students. Schools can lose their certification if they fail to comply with federal regulations. Each school is re-evaluated every two years.

Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for ICE, says that SEVP’s staff determine which schools require investigation or review using various criteria. The indicators include the proportion of the student body made up of international students, the school’s operational history, and the capacity of the school’s facilities compared to the number of students it enrolls.

Whether or not a school is violating the regulations is often a very fine line. Cutrell says that even schools that are doing everything right—”Every student could be doing what they were supposed to do”—can still look suspect to ICE.

“It’s a very easy thing for a school to fall into a situation that could be borderline or questionable. But again, it’s legally permissible. It just depends on the specific facts of the situation,” said Minear.

Recruiting students who want to work

The graduate program at Campbellsville University works with about 30 recruiters, Spears says, but they do not promote the program as a way for foreign nationals to lengthen their stay in the US. “That’s a student’s decision,” he added.

“There are lot of people who hear from their colleagues, roommates and friends about our program. I think our recruiters found about 20% of them or so. The rest of them are students coming themselves,” said Spears.

Vesta’s Facebook flier
Vesta’s Facebook flier

In the school’s tax filing for its fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, University of the Cumberlands indicated it paid Vesta Technology Solutions–a Louisville, Kentucky-based consultancy company with an office in Hyderabad, India–$1.64 million for graduate program marketing and recruitment. The only post on the consultancy company’s Facebook page is an image of a recruitment flyer for the graduate program at University of the Cumberlands.

It touts the school as having low tuition, quick turnaround on admissions decisions, and that you can “work full-time while you study at (selected) universities”.

Neither the company’s website nor the phone number associated with it are active. According to the archived company’s homepage from September 2017, Eric Harter, the president and CEO of the company, is also the lead professor of the MSITM program at Campbellsville University. Several emails and phone calls to Harter were not returned.

While staying in the US is the main reason for him to take classes, Swamy still sees the silver lining in his round-about work visa. “Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m going to school as an adult, learning new things and trying to apply to work.”