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A magnifying glass inspects a college application over a silhouette of a man with a backpack and a map of the world

Some colleges are seeing an influx of fake applications from international students as recruitment expands in countries with complex, often corruptible visa systems.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | Rawpixel

Portland State University isn’t the type of institution one would expect to have much name recognition outside Oregon, let alone thousands of miles across the Pacific. Yet a few years ago, the mostly local-serving public university began attracting an unusually large number of international applicants, primarily from India and Bangladesh.

The university’s leaders were pleasantly surprised: for a regional public college that relies heavily on tuition revenue, full-paying international students can play a big role in meeting enrollment goals. Last year Portland State accepted 46 international students from India and Bangladesh and received deposits from 20 of them.

But when the semester started last September, only three of those students signed up for classes—a devastating gap between expected and actual yield.

“When we first saw all these applications from India and Bangladesh, we got excited because it reminded us of when China was really exploding,” said Lindsay Stamsos, international admission counselor and coordinator for global recruitment and outreach at Portland State. “Then we realized these students weren’t actually enrolling in classes.”

Stamsos said the problem of missing international students on her campus has gone on for a few years now. In 2023 her four-person team, struck by the number of absentees, meticulously scrutinized their international applications. They concluded that about 65 percent of their applications from India and Bangladesh—and 14 percent of all international applications—were likely fraudulent, presenting either real names with fake details or completely fabricated identities.

“That’s kind of nuts. We’re a pretty big institution, so that’s a lot of people,” she said. “And that’s the minimum, I would say. That’s a conservative estimate.”

All the evidence, Stamsos said, points to foul play: dodgy recruiting agents securing acceptance letters to make coveted visa appointments in their home countries, for instance, or to speed up clients’ visa processing.

The international student market, long focused on recruiting students from China, is steadily shifting to South Asia. Data from the Institute for International Education show that India was the No. 1 recruitment market for U.S. colleges last year at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, capturing the top undergraduate spot for the first time. Other rising source countries include Bangladesh, Nepal, Nigeria and Ghana.

With the shift comes new concerns, including visa systems that are more vulnerable to corruption, and less equipped to process large numbers of student documents, than those in China or many European countries. Clay Harmon, the incoming director of AIRC—the Association of International Enrollment Managers, once the American International Recruitment Council—is careful not to use the word “fraud,” but he said he’s aware of increasing opportunities for actors, both opportunistic and malevolent, to game the system, causing undue problems for international admissions offices.

“Certainly we’re seeing a lot that goes against the spirit of international enrollment, that really takes advantage of those pathways,” he said.

Weeding out fraudulent applications bogs down admissions offices, especially at lesser-known institutions with fewer application requirements. Their simple eligibility thresholds and appetite for full-paying international students make them the perfect marks for any student or recruitment agent seeking to take advantage of the system, whether to gain easier entry to the U.S. or to profit from the sale of nonimmigrant visa appointments.

Those colleges are also the least equipped to handle the influx; the task of reviewing applications for signs of fraud can stretch thin a two- or three-person team.

“There’s so many work hours going into this, probably three times the work of an actual, legitimate student,” Stamsos said. “It also makes our international department seem illegitimate and like our enrollment team’s planning is poor. It’s bad all around for us, not just financially.”

Haunted by Ghost Applicants

International recruiters in India and Bangladesh are competing for slots in student visa waiting lines that can often span a year or more. Last winter, the wait time for a U.S. visa appointment in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, reached a peak of 247 days, according to data from the State Department. The wait time for an appointment at the U.S. consulate in New Delhi is 254 days; in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, it’s 220. By comparison, it takes eight days in Beijing and three in Berlin.

Stamsos said this scarcity has created a market for exploitation, in which recruiters will fake applications to U.S. colleges in order to secure a nonimmigrant I-20 visa and move up on the wait list. Then they sell the appointments to real people anxious to speed up the process.

“There’s most likely a network of recruitment agents looking to make money by gaming the system. What they do is they get accepted with the student’s information, they get an I-20, they set up a visa appointment and then they sell that appointment to another student that may be legitimate,” Stamsos said.

Then, right before classes start, dropout and transfer emails flood in, explaining why those students are no longer interested in attending.

“[They] say, ‘Portland weather is too dark’ or ‘I want to be with my family in New York,’” Stamsos said. “But they’re all copy and paste, basically the same wording. It’s not even like they’re trying to hide it.”

Stamsos, who has sat in on webinars with the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, said officials are aware recruiters are selling visa appointments.

Her office does its best, she said, but it is ill equipped for the kind of forensic work necessary to weed out the fake applications. Many of the most obviously false documents are PDFs of bank statements that are identical to other applicants’ except for the names; when she calls the number listed for the bank, sometimes she’s greeted by the same man’s voice mail on the other end, she said.

“We need to do our due diligence, but we are not trained to look at fraudulent documents,” she said. “We’re not detectives.”

Fake application materials, exploitable work-study arrangements, unscrupulous recruitment agents—these issues have plagued colleges in other countries, including Australia and Canada, that have also become primary destinations for the growing South Asian international student pool. The U.S. may just be a bit behind.

Harmon said such challenges are unfortunately to be expected when exploring a new market.

“It’s an incredibly dynamic time in our field,” he said. “These kinds of issues are definitely going to be a focus in the coming years.”

‘Dealing With Uncertainty’

It’s not just recruiters driving the problem. Nigamanth Sridhar, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Cleveland State University, said his institution has also struggled with ghosting by international students—especially from India, where 80 percent of CSU’s international applicants come from.

“We’ve never had the resources to have a major international operation, and so most of our name recognition outside of the U.S. is just word of mouth,” Sridhar said. “That’s been built in India over the years organically.”

Cleveland State’s main problem is what Sridhar calls “transfer-outs,” students who are admitted, arrive on campus and then a few weeks later transfer to a community college or four-year institution with more favorable part-time work visa policies. One-third of the 3,000 Indian students Cleveland State admitted since launching a partnership with Shorelight Recruitment in 2018 transferred out; 20 percent never even set foot on campus, Sridhar said. This fall, 160 international students transferred before registering for classes.

“It’s incredibly frustrating for the entire university—not just us, but facilities, the recruiters, everyone … [The students] don’t even have to give us a reason. We are required to honor their request,” he said. “We’ve gotten really good at dealing with uncertainty, but that’s not at all something I want to deal with.”

Many of the transfer students end up at the same small group of institutions, Sridhar said. Twenty-five percent of the university’s fall 2023 transfers went to Trine University in Angola, Indiana; others headed to Indiana Wesleyan University and the University of the Cumberlands, in Williamsburg, Ky. These campuses all have a strong online presence and offer day-one CPT, or curricular practical training, a policy that allows students to start working part- or full-time immediately upon enrolling in college courses. Cleveland State, by contrast, makes students wait at least a year before offering CPT.

Sridhar suspects that many of these students are immigrants looking for workarounds to the often byzantine H-1B visa process, trying to plant themselves in jobs that will ease their path toward long-term residency. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office has issued a number of warnings over the years about students abusing day-one CPT to this effect.

Harmon is familiar with the CPT loophole and said many international enrollment professionals mentioned it at the annual AIRC conference in Phoenix last month. He said one of his goals as the incoming AIRC chief is to work with the federal government to issue clearer best practices around the policy and potentially some more solid regulations.

“Day-one CPT is not illegal, but it does run counter to … the intentions behind the student visa,” he said. “We do want to engage with the government on this issue and suggest changes to regulations and protocol where it makes sense.”

Quality Assurance

Whatever the specifics of the visa complications, the headaches they cause have spread throughout the international enrollment field. In spring 2022, government agencies got involved: the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program held a meeting with colleges in the Seattle area in April, after community colleges in the region reported that most admitted Bangladeshi students transferred after receiving their I-20 forms. Stamsos said that year’s International Association for College Admission Counseling conference featured a session on fraudulent application materials, including bank documents, transcripts and English proficiency scores.

A spokesperson for the SEVP declined to answer questions about any potential investigation, but multiple sources told Inside Higher Ed they had heard about the 2022 meeting.

Amanda Fletcher, executive director of the office of international programs at Edmonds College, a few miles north of Seattle, said her institution had a “huge influx” of Bangladeshi applicants in 2022, the majority of whom did not show up even after being admitted. While Fletcher only joined Edmonds last summer, she said her predecessors had told her they assumed the issue was that most of the students did not get their visas approved. Of those who did, 18 transferred immediately.

Stamsos isn’t surprised.

“We’re clearly not the only ones dealing with this,” she said. “If I had to guess, I’d say 75 percent of institutions are.”

Harmon said the most important step for adapting to the new market is to mandate stronger certification standards for international recruiting agencies, or to encourage institutional leaders to work only with those certified by AIRC, whose standards include in-person verification and knowledge of the U.S. visa system.

“One result we’ve seen from the pandemic is a profusion of recruitment business models. Many of these companies are fully online or do not identify with the agent label, even if, from the institutional perspective, they act as such,” he said.

Harmon added that he hopes the rise in student visa challenges doesn’t give institutions an excuse to make the process more difficult for applicants from the Global South, who already experience stricter visa scrutiny than those from Europe or East Asia. In 2022, African students’ visas were rejected at five times the rate of European applicants’, according to a study by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration; students from South Asia didn’t fare much better.

Sridhar said the last thing he wants is for the visa problems to make it more difficult for students from South Asia to study in the U.S. He took that pathway himself, arriving in the Midwest from Pilani, India, in 1999 to complete his Ph.D. at Ohio State University, and he is a staunch believer in the promise of American higher education for international students.

“I think the vast majority of students who apply for an F-1 visa to study in the U.S. are doing so with good intentions and incredibly strong records. It’s a much smaller number of students and people that take advantage of these systems,” he said.

But he acknowledges that that small minority cannot go unchecked. Adapting to the new challenges, he said, will be an important indicator of the country’s readiness for a new era of internationalization in higher ed.

“These are essentially stress tests,” he said. “I hope that we pass them, and I sincerely hope that they don’t disrupt the larger system.”

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