Last week, a Chinese woman was sentenced to 16 years of federal prison for running a bogus university in San Francisco, California.
The Tri-Valley University was raided in 2011, and subsequently forced to shut down, for running an immigration scam. The perpetrator was found charging foreign students $2,700 in tuition per semester to illegally migrate and work in the US. Around 85% of them were of Indian origin—and may or not have been aware of the wrongdoing.
For almost 1,800 Indian students, job prospects were ruined. At the time, US authorities allowed only 435 students to transfer to other universities. The remaining were denied transfer, or they voluntarily chose to return to India.
The news caught media attention when US authorities required the expelled Tri-Valley students to wear radio collars to track their movements as they awaited their fate about deportation to India. That sparked protests in India.
But the Tri-Valley University was not the only diploma mill—as the unaccredited universities are sometimes called—duping mostly Indian students. The same year the University of Northern Virginia was raided by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal agencies. About 2,000 Indian students were found working in other US states and taking online classes from their enrolled university—as opposed to living and studying on campus. Last year, the University of Northern Virginia was ordered to close down.
In the UK, the problem seems even more rampant: according to a report in The Guardian, “there are more than twice as many bogus universities in the UK as genuine ones—higher than anywhere else in Europe.” A report in Saudi Gazette last year found that there were more than 300 unaccredited universities around the world.
Interestingly, Indians applying to study abroad show the strongest academic record. According to a study by World Education Services, a New York-based nonprofit specializing in international higher education, almost 74% of Indian students are academically prepared, compared to 51% of Chinese or 43% of Saudi respondents.
Every year, more than 200,000 Indian students travel for better education abroad—spending a fortune on tuition and living costs. The US alone enrolls nearly half of them.
By becoming prey to a bogus university, they not only lose a chance to earn a reputable degree and a job afterward, but they also face deportation and the prospect of criminal cases against them.
Here are five tips to steer clear of the diploma mills:
1. Beware of advertising
A degree is not a commodity. So, why advertise?
Most private, money-minting universities rely on advertisements to lure students. That should turn your blinkers on.
Rashmi Bansal, author and editor of JAM Magazine, who nine years ago wrote an article exposing Indian Institute of Planning and Management’s false claims to be an accredited university, told Quartz: “Every Monday, the institute would run full page advertisements in all major Indian newspapers, which I felt was very odd.” The university was censured for misleading students last month.
2. Avoid the matchmakers
In 2011, members of the All India Students Federation, the national students’ union body, demonstrated outside the US Consulate in Hyderabad to express solidarity with the duped students of Tri-Valley University. The union president, Syed Vali Ullah Khadri, told Quartz that students shouldn’t be blamed.
“Tri-Valley University marketed through its mediators in India who promised part-time jobs, a foreign degree, and scholarships to students. Obviously they are lured. These agents offer discounts, and students can bargain to avail of the best offer,” Khadri said.
As it became clear in the case of the Tri-Valley University, the middlemen are dubious. In India, an overwhelming 93% of students use agents to shortlist universities, however they often don’t realize that agents have accepted incentives from some universities—may of which low-quality, or even fake—to get students to enroll.
3. Read on the web
Look at the university websites, and search news related to the school you’ve chosen. Besides, use the university professors to find out as much information pertaining the quality of the university. Also, read about the professors. Who are they? What are their credentials? Email them your queries, and judge them on their straightforwardness. If need be, stalk them on social media platforms.
4. Join the alumni network
According to Bansal, students often don’t make proper enquiries. “When you buy a car, you first go for a test-drive. Or, you will ask at least 10 people, or look for some 100 reviews. But when you have to choose a college, within India itself, people won’t travel to find out whether or not it’s a good college. It’s just on hearsay.”
A sure-shot way to “test-drive” your university is to connect with at least two or three of its alumni. Find out about their experience studying in the university. Evaluate the jobs that they have landed after graduating: it is a good parameter to decide whether the fortune you’re spending on the university is worth your money.
5. Use social media to meet people abroad
Following the right people on LinkedIn and Twitter can help, too. Connect with people who have probably studied in a university in the same state, or country, and they could tell you the reputation that your preferred university enjoys. If you can, email them your questions. Ask them to connect you with relevant sources.