Thursday, August 04, 2011

Risky rush for a US degree: Grim awakening for Indian students

It is illegal for universities in the US to use agents to recruit students within the country. However, the law does not prevent the institutions from paying agents to recruit students from other countries. Nor is there any law in India barring agents from approaching students on behalf of foreign schools. This, along with the strong demand in India for an education abroad, may be putting a number of students at risk of being duped.

If the shutdown of the Tri-Valley University in California by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in January was a wake-up call, the raid on the University of Northern Virginia on July 28, was another warning signal for Indian students in the US. In both schools, an overwhelming number of students enrolled were from India, the majority from Andhra Pradesh. Both universities are alleged to have violated the law by enrolling more foreign students than they were allowed to. In the case of Tri-Valley, the institution was charging tuition fees but not holding sufficient classes on campus, and allowing students to take up employment in the US as soon as they enrolled, which is also against the law.

Some or several of the students may not be blameless victims. They had enrolled at these universities precisely as a way of getting into the US on student visas to work immediately – some at grocery stores or a McDonald’s, in cities hundreds of miles away from campus – while ostensibly taking classes online. But for those who joined these schools in pursuit of their dream of a US education, it’s a grim awakening.

The Telugu Association of North America, or Tana, which has been counselling the affected students, fears the Tri-Valley and UNVA cases are just the tip of the iceberg. “There are another 15,000-20,000 Indian students minimum” at similar universities of dubious repute, says Ashok Kolla, the Chair for NRI Student Services at Tana. It’s not known whether the students at these two schools were recruited by agents in India. Court documents in the Tri-Valley case alleged students themselves often acted as recruiters, being paid a portion of the tuition fee of new students they had brought in.

New York-based Harjiv Singh is the founder and CEO of an online resource, braingainmag.com, for students who want to study in the US and other countries. When it comes to Indian students heading to US universities, says Singh, the problem cuts both ways. “There is a severe lack of information, especially in the smaller towns, about US universities where students can get legitimate degrees. At the same time, a lot of universities in the US don’t know how to tap genuine students in India and use consultants or middlemen to do the job.”

Facing budget cuts at home, several US universities are desperate to add full-fee paying students to their ranks. While prestigious universities like Harvard or Yale don’t need agents, several smaller schools are not known well outside the US and hire consultants to get noticed. Due diligence is essential, advises Singh, especially since going to the US to study is expensive. “Are you being asked to pay the consultant for enrolling in a school? That should be a warning sign, as US universities typically don’t require payment for considering a student for admission.”

Philip Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, is familiar with the problem, having taught in India. He wants recruiters to be removed from the process. Altbach says the practice of using recruiters is becoming widespread in the US because many schools don’t want to make the effort or invest enough resources to vet individual students and simply pass off the task to agents, who push as many students as possible because they are often paid per student enrolled.

However, there are strong advocates for the use of recruiters and Mitch Leventhal, Vice-Chancellor for Global Affairs at the State University of New York (SUNY), is one of them. “The most direct way to recruit students is through agents,” he says. Leventhal is also co-founder of the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), set up three years earlier, to develop standards and a framework for certification in the recruiting industry. SUNY, says Leventhal, works only with AIRC-certified agents. Consultants in India also use their certification by AIRC as a selling point. For instance, Global Reach declares on its website that it has been certified as “the first Agent to recruit students from India and Nepal for all our partner institutions in the US by the American International Recruitment Council”. But this is a recent effort. Leventhal admits only 43 agents have gone through the AIRC’s training and certification process. He points out there are more Indian agents in this group than from any other country.

Another minefield for Indian students is trying to identify genuinely accredited universities. The US State Department’s Education USA website is a good resource for identifying accredited institutions. Singh of braingainmag.com advises students to also check placement records of their chosen schools. And, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, functions as an accreditor of accreditors, helping students verify whether their university is accredited by a genuine accreditor.

Source: Business Standard, August 4, 2011
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