(From the now-offline University of Farmington website)

When it comes to the University of Farmington, the sham college set up by the federal government as a student-visa sting, there has been a great deal of debate about the culpability of the students who enrolled there: Did those who signed up to attend the university — which never offered any courses and operated out of a suburban Detroit office suite — think they were attending a legit institution? Or was it just a pretext to acquire the legal documents to come to the United States?

What’s absolutely not up for debate is this: Farmington had accreditation from a real accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. And that leads to a whole new line of questioning, namely: Should accreditors be acting as accomplices to the federal government in an investigation that many see as coming dangerously close to entrapment?

That’s the issue that lawmakers, including Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, are raising in a pair of letters to the Education Department and to the accreditor, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. But before I get into the substance of those letters, let me take you on a brief detour about the history of accreditation and the student-visa system.

The two have been closely intertwined, dating back to a rather staggering omission in the legislation setting up the modern student-visa system in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks: In creating it, lawmakers never included a requirement that colleges approved to admit international students be accredited. Early student-visa mills took advantage of the loophole, locating in states without tough accreditation requirements of their own or with lax enforcement. When colleagues and I investigated these fake colleges, we found that they had sometimes made up their oversight bodies; when we visited one so-called accreditor, it turned out to be an auto-body shop.

After that spotlight, these questionable colleges looked for more of a patina of legitimacy, and they turned to a handful of national accreditors. These groups had come under fire during the Obama administration, and reporting by Buzzfeed News and others found that when it came to international students, their supervision could be weak.

That brings us back to the University of Farmington, which was accredited by one of these national organizations, ACCSC. In the letter to the Education Department, Warren and two other lawmakers — Susan Davis, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment, and Andy Levin, a Michigan congressman — point to conversations between the department and White House officials about national accreditors and student-visa mills. Was there a “nexus,” they write, between those discussions and ACCSC’s role in the Farmington operation?

Even if you don’t subscribe to the idea of some larger connection, it’s fair to ask: Should accreditors be giving their public blessing to a college they know to be fake — even if the U.S. government makes the request? The legislators make clear where they come down on that question. In the letter to ACCSC, they write:

“These actions undermine ACCSC’s credibility as an accreditor and the legitimacy of the U.S. higher education system as a whole.”

What do you think? Should accrediting agencies be part of government stings? And what issues about the student-visa system does the Farmington case highlight? When it comes to directions for future coverage, I’m all ears. You can find me at latitudesnews@gmail.com, and on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Future of Enrollments, Your Take

Last week, I shared my piece about the future of international enrollments: As the China boom fades and the number of new international students declines, what next? I heard from several readers about what they’re seeing — and what strategies they’re taking. Here are a few observations:

  • From James Shafer, director of marketing and recruitment at Touro College Graduate School of Technology: “We’re getting out a message to international prospects that fewer international students coming now to the U.S. means less competition for those STEM OPT jobs when you graduate. The visa may be harder to get, but if you succeed there’s never been a better time to graduate with a STEM degree, especially in New York.”
  • From William Painter, dean of the Westford School of Management: “We just formed an important partnership between an American university and a teaching institution that will provide on-ramping of academically qualified students from Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia. It is a model that is scalable with predictable numbers and does not rely on recruiters at all.” Painter told me that Westford approached Bellevue University because of “its reputation as an institution dedicated to innovation and adult education…This new model grows out of those shared values.“
  • From Nithy Sevanthinathan, director of international student programs at Houston Community College: “Understanding international student mobility is an important value proposition for any nation building. The U.S. is still the favorite destination for international students. Under the current environment, focus on the sense of belonging and activities and programs for these students beginning from orientation. We will will survive this era as we transformed after the worst and very unfortunate 9/11 event. Still, in many parts of the world, higher education attainment is challenging. American education, from community colleges to universities, is a great possibility for such students.”

And if you missed it, I included a couple of additional predictions that didn’t make the cut in the article in last week’s newsletter.

Looking Up in Britain

International enrollments in the United States may be hitting a trough, but UK universities are seeing an upswing. International numbers climbed nearly 6 percent in the last academic year, with particularly sharp increases, of 35 percent, from India.

The British trend is notable, both for the contrast with the U.S. and because not long ago, experts were predicting that Brexit could hurt international enrollments. One development to note: The UK recently relaxed post-graduation work rules. But I’d be interested in your thoughts about what accounts for the different trajectories between the two countries and what American colleges might learn from their British counterparts.

Around the Globe

Three University of Florida researchers have resigned and one was fired amid an investigation into foreign research ties.

An Australian university will no longer seek financial damages from a professor who had alleged on a nationwide television program that it had lowered its admissions standards to enroll more international students.

A top Russian university is considering banning political speech by students and faculty memberes. The Higher School of Economics also wants to revoke student newspapers’ status as student clubs.

Yet another report says the U.S. is losing its preeminence in science and engineering.

And one more Confucius Institute is closing.

The Chinese government wants more students to study subjects like math that will “serve the country’s significant strategic demands.”

Uganda’s president says universities need to turn out more students who can fill employment needs.

There is a new indictment in the case of a Kansas professor accused of working for China.

Chinese students on U.S. campuses told Voice of America that they feared they were being watched and reported on by fellow students.

British prime minister Boris Johnson said students will still be able to participate in the Erasmus academic mobility program after Brexit.

In the wake of a Florida shooting, nearly two dozen Saudi military students training on American bases were sent home.

China is ending an alternative admissions program that allowed universities to recruit some students from outside the gao kao college-entrance exam.

International students will be able to gain admission to a Chicago-area university by completing a pathways program — in Sweden.

Spot interesting international-ed news? Send it my way, latitudesnews@gmail.com.

And finally …

God knows I love a spoof higher-ed ranking. The latest, from the parody University of Bantshire, ranks British institutions based on the Scrabble word scores of their names, which, if anything, ought to get extra credit for doubling down on the sheer dorkiness of it all. All credit for this item goes to Joe Avison, who never fails to brighten my day.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.