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Admission of International Students to Universities May Pose a Threat to National Security

Growing Problem of Fraud in International Student Applications to Higher Education Institutions

As a college professor I have always wondered how some of my international students were ever admitted to the university. Now, I think the answer is clear. Lying on applications forms; misstating one’s past education and experiences; and the omission of important information all have contributed to a growing culture of deceit by international students applying for colleges around the world.

Fraud in international higher education is a $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion business, according to an expert at the European Association for International Education annual conference. Fraud affects all aspects of international education, from admissions to immigration rules violations. At the extreme are cases like Tri-Valley University, an unaccredited California institution and alleged "visa mill" shut down by U.S. authorities in 2011. Less nefariously, there is reason to believe that at many U.S. colleges, good old-fashioned evaluation of international applicants' credentials is being largely ignored or passed over in the admission decision. Personally, I believe the reason is the need for tuition revenue from international students who pay the full freight for their education in most countries including the U.S.

For a case study of what can go wrong in international student admissions and enrollment, look no further than North Dakota’s Dickinson State University. An audit released earlier this year found that the university admitted students to programs it offered jointly with Chinese and Russian universities even though they lacked standardized English proficiency test scores and official transcripts; at least 15 students fell short of the 2.0 grade point average cut-off. Dickinson State received very little documentation directly from its partner institutions in China and Russia. Instead, the university relied almost wholly on information from overseas agents – paid per-capita commissions – who verified the students’ English language abilities.

As for transcripts, students used Microsoft Excel and university logos cut and pasted or purchased online.

Fraud in international higher education applications and admissions processes range from résumé embellishment, on the low end, to full-scale identity fraud on the high end. In between, the fraud consists of fake letters of recommendation, plagiarism, purchased test scores,  purchased transcripts, purchased degrees, fake immigration records (such as passports), and bribery of immigration officials.

As an educator I have learned to discount most letters of recommendation even for U.S. students because a student would not ask someone to write such a letter unless they were convinced it would help them obtain admission. As for test scores, I've always felt some of them were doctored for English language tests coming out of certain Asian countries where lying and "exaggerating" the truth is commonplace.

Fraud touches all continents and seems especially troublesome in Asia and in some African countries. In a discussion board of international educators, it is said that someone from a Midwestern college posted in the spring that the institution had received 80 applications from Nigerian students, all with the same letter of reference.

Someone from another college posted that it also had a big batch of applications from Nigeria, all with identical transcripts. Then a third person posted that the same thing had happened to his institution the year before. And because that institution wanted to diversify its international student population, and thought it would be good to have some Nigerian students, it admitted four of them. The university official signed their I-20s and hasn't seen them since. Ostensibly, the "students" used their visas merely as a means to gain entry into the country.

Generally speaking, good people do not commit fraud and the bad actors who do are more likely to commit other wrongful acts against society than those who play by the rules. Fraud in international higher education is a troubling development especially in light of growing terrorism against the U.S. including recent attacks against our consulates in the Middle East and Africa. Universities must become more vigilant in their review of international student applications and supporting documentation. Universities should not rationalize more lenient practices because of severe budget cuts in some states and reduced funding of public institutions of higher learning.

The rationalization for an unethical action (i.e. admitting unqualified students) because of funding issues cannot be condoned and shouldn't be permitted by responsible university officials. I fear the lax policies have created a situation where we have a powder keg ready to explode and do real harm to students on campuses, citizens in the streets, and U.S. interests both at home and abroad.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 27, 2012