Standards for Agents - and Colleges

Emergence of “sham university” preying on foreign students shows that U.S. higher ed system needs oversight just as recruiters do, writes Mark Shay.

March 25, 2011

For two weeks in February, a lead news story in India was the “sham” Tri-Valley University, and the more than 1,500 Indian students who were deceived and may now be deported from the United States after the Department of Homeland Security closed the California enterprise.

This incident should motivate the U.S. higher education community to examine how an illegitimate organization could have been operating under the moniker “university” for so long and to such a large scale.

Usually, when the terms “foreign students” and “illegitimate” are paired together, it’s in debate over student recruitment services such as agents. What the Tri-Valley incident brings to light is that standards and professionalism are just as urgently needed in our own country, for those providing higher education to foreign students, as they are abroad, for those looking to counsel such students.

For anyone still debating whether colleges and universities in the United States should use agents to recruit students from other countries, consider that upwards of 85 percent of foreign students consult a counselor (agents and independent consultants are viewed as one in the same overseas) before applying to college in the United States. We can therefore no longer avoid two truths: foreign students use agents (a legal practice both abroad and in the United States), and diploma mills have found a new target.

What we can do is work together to protect foreign students from receiving incorrect or even intentionally misleading information, whether about legitimate institutions or other scam universities.

Bringing Standards to Agents

The first step to protecting foreign students is to try to ensure credibility and integrity among representatives overseas who help advise students on their educational options in the United States. This includes third-party agents who contract with institutions, as well as independent counselors who work for the student.

As an employee of the world’s largest student placement firm, I am on the board of directors of the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), which certifies recruitment organizations as legitimate and trustworthy based on organizational standards developed by the university members. I encourage everyone to visit the group's website and download its recent white paper, Towards Professional Standards and Practices in International Student Recruitment, which makes a reasoned case for why it behooves U.S. institutions to stop denying the common overseas practice of using agents and start embracing what can be an effective international marketing strategy.

Agents are only one piece of the equation, however. My organization is also promoting an effort to bring standards and professionalism to all overseas professionals involved with student counseling. The details they possess and the practices they follow should all be standardized in some capacity, to minimize the misinformation passed to students.

My thought is that individuals as well as the organizations should be certified, much in the same way that many U.S. industries currently operate.

Bringing Standards to the U.S. Higher Education System

What has become clear is that regulating the individuals responsible for counseling foreign students isn’t enough. The question now is: Who will work to bring similar levels of standards to the U.S. higher education system?

What we should all be worried about now is how we ensure that there aren’t other Tri-Valley Universities out there, preying on foreign students.

A criticism I often hear leveled against my industry is that if not all student placement organizations are legitimate, how can we trust that any are? What we as a community now face is the very real possibility that foreign students say the same thing about us. If not all U.S. institutions are legitimate, how can they trust that any are legitimate? How can they know which universities are “safe” among such a large number?

The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are making great strides to educate the public on which institutions have legitimate accreditation. The problem is that even unaccredited institutions like Tri-Valley University (which references the education department and CHEA on its website) can be granted authority by the U.S. government to issue I-20s, the documents necessary for foreign students to secure visas to study in the United States.

The University of Northern Virginia owns a .edu website ( and claims to hold accreditation. As listed on the website: “The University of Northern Virginia is certified to operate in Virginia by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). UNVA is accredited by the American University Accreditation Council (AUAC). UNVA is authorized by the United States Government to enroll non-immigrant alien students.”

Then, in small print, the Web page acknowledges that, “AUAC is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an accrediting body and is a non-CHEA accreditation agency for the U.S. schools with international programs.”

Why are those messages allowed to coexist? Why is an institution that is not accredited by a recognized accreditation body “authorized by the United States Government to enroll non-immigrant alien students”?

The criteria for how a higher education institution receives clearance from the federal government to issue I-20s to students are vague, with much of the responsibility being put on the institution itself. When a university applies for entrance into the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, reference checks akin to those for job interviews are conducted. As we’re now learning with Tri-Valley University, school officials provided false information about the institution’s authenticity that the government only discovered after granting it approval to issue I-20s, meaning only after it authorized Tri-Valley to bring foreign students into the United States.

Once an application is approved, a university assigns a Designated School Official to be sworn by the U.S. government to uphold the law. Much of the regulation is then left in the hands of the institution itself and the students, who are expected to be savvy enough to recognize the difference between legitimate organizations and scams.

The problem, of course, is that students often see that a university is authorized by the U.S. government to enroll international students and assume that means the university is legitimate.

Some prospective students meet with IDP Education counselors only after conducting their own extensive research and gathering more knowledge about the U.S. higher education system than many domestic students possess.

Others enter one of our counseling centers having no sense of the differences between Harvard University’s regional accreditation, Stratford University’s institutional accreditation through a “national” accreditor, and Herguan University offering no officially recognized accreditation but claiming to be “Approved under the Department of Homeland Security to enroll non-immigrant alien students for attendance by non-immigrant international students,” and asserting that “the California Bureau for Private Post-secondary and Vocational Education (BPPVE) has granted Herguan University approval as a California degree-granting institution prior to closing.”

We may be able to echo the U.S. government’s stance that students need to be better educated on the topic, and working to regulate overseas advisers will go a long way to achieving that. But this head-in-the-sand mentality cannot be the only way to handle such an important issue.

There should be more stringent standards for which institutions are authorized to issue I-20s. If a university is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or CHEA, why is it allowed to enroll foreign students? If practices like this continue, the entire reputation of the U.S. higher education system is at risk.

When stories like Tri-Valley University dominate the foreign news and represent U.S. higher education as the bad guy, we need to show the rest of the world that we’re actively working to protect their students from illegitimate operations. That includes unprofessional student advisers and sham universities.

Too much is at stake not to try to do something to fix this glaring problem.


Mark Shay is North America director of IDP Education, and the founder and former CEO of Educational Directories Unlimited.


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