When Albert Anarwat applied to the for-profit Aristotle University, in California, the Ghanaian student said he asked the university if the institution was accredited. Not only was he told yes, he said, but he also was told that if the university was not accredited, “How could they get a SEVIS number” – SEVIS being the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. In other words, if the institution was not accredited, how could it be approved to host international students?
But it wasn’t, and it was. Two years after the revelations regarding the “sham” Tri-Valley University, another unaccredited California institution enrolling all international students is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Aristotle currently enrolls nine F-1 visa holders in a master of public health program that operates without state approval and holds class only one day per week in an office space.
Student complaints about Aristotle first came to light after a recent NBC San Diego investigation. Ginger E. Jacobs, an immigration lawyer who has met pro bono with three of Aristotle’s current and former students and communicated with a fourth, said the students share the same main complaint: “They’ve invested a large amount of money in this educational program, they were hoping that it would be an opportunity for them to learn an enormous amount and to be able to gain skills and knowledge that they could take back to their countries, and instead of a rich educational experience what they’re having is very skimpy instruction. Basically [they’re meeting] one day a week in class and it’s not very informative or instructive training: they’re watching educational videos, they’re not getting hands-on teaching, they’re not learning anything. They’re not getting what they signed up for.”
Jacobs continued: “Now the problem is they would happily transfer to another university to find a better academic program, but they essentially don’t have any money left.”
Anarwat said that’s the position he finds himself in. He said he was originally planning to attend a liberal arts college in the Midwest before learning that he could skip straight to Aristotle's master's program -- despite only having an associate degree. He said that when he showed up at Aristotle in the fall, he asked “What kind of university is this? There is no library, no books, no nothing.” He said on weeks there are holidays there are no classes at all, and a new course module starts every two months, when another $2,000 in tuition comes due (according to the university, the two-year program costs about $25,000 in total).
“You are paying to live in the United States but you are not paying for an education," Anarwat said. "You’re not getting an education. There’s no single American.” Rather he said the students all come from Cameroon, Ghana, India or Tanzania. On the NBC report, one student from Cameroon was anonymously quoted as saying "not even in my country had I seen such meaningless education offered to students."
Xanthi Gionis, the university’s dean of students and admission, disputes the students’ portrayal of the quality of the educational programming. She said that while it is the case that classes are only held once a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., she also said that the schedule is meant to accommodate students' transportation challenges. In terms of facilities, she said the university just moved to a new space in downtown Carlsbad, which she described as consisting of an office and a conference room that can seat 25 students and be used as a classroom. She said that there is an online library of public health and medical journals, and that textbooks are provided to students. In terms of faculty, she said a new instructor is brought in for each module and that all have master’s degrees in public health: however, she declined to provide a list of these instructors, saying she feared they would be harassed by reporters.
When asked about the admission of students who held associate but not bachelor degrees -- which was the case for two different students who spoke with Inside Higher Ed -- Gionis initially denied this was permitted but later changed her tone, writing in an email message "that it is our position as a university that education empowers people with knowledge and permits them to pursue their educational dreams...to become meaningful contributors to their community. My brother, for example, obtained his M.D degree with NO A.A, and NO Bachelor's degree.... Perhaps, the exception to the rule, but who is to determine which student will be the exception."
Gionis, a Republican candidate for a California State Senate seat, also questioned the credibility of Anarwat, who she said had been dismissed from the university because he failed to attend classes. (Anarwat said he missed two lectures because he was sick, while Gionis said perhaps he had attended twice. Anarwat said that he received a phone call from Gionis on Jan. 24 indicating that he would be dismissed if he did not pay tuition, but that he could not pay because he had lost his wallet; he said he has yet to receive any documentation of his dismissal.)
Gionis said she has dismissed three students for failing to pay tuition or attend classes this academic year but emphasized that she has personally received no complaints from the 10 students who remain enrolled at Aristotle. (This includes the nine referenced above with active F-1 status, and one additional student who she said had initially decided to leave but changed her mind, and is still enrolled, pending a change in immigration status.) “Those 10, the ones that attend and pay their tuition and really want an education, those 10 are very worried about being able to continue at Aristotle,” Gionis said.
They may have reason to worry. Russ Heimerich, a spokesman with the California Department of Consumer Affairs, confirmed that the institution does not have approval from the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education to operate – and said that operating without approval can be penalized by a $50,000 fine. Aristotle’s website has been taken down, but the NBC report notes that on it the university claimed state approval by virtue of the approval of its “subsidiary,” the Aristotle University College of Law, approved for a five-year term in 2007. The law school was sold in 2010, however. And, as Heimerich said, “There is nothing about approval of a subsidiary that guarantees you approval of anything else. In other words, if I’m a school that offers a barbering and cosmetology license, and then I open another school, I can’t say, ‘Well, we’re approved to offer a degree in math because of the previous approval.' "
The university’s ability to host international students also seems to be tied to its former law school: DHS lists two Aristotle University locations as certified to host F-1 students, both of which are locations of the College of Law. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the branch of DHS that administers the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, has struggled to verify the legitimacy of SEVP-certified institutions, as a 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found. Specifically, the report noted that SEVP has not consistently verified documents submitted by unaccredited higher education institutions as evidence of their legitimacy “in lieu of accreditation.” While a 2011 law requires that all intensive English programs must be accredited in order to host international students, there is no parallel requirement for colleges and universities.