How one California university faked students’ scores, skated by immigration authorities — and made a fortune in the process.
I derive absolutely no pleasure at all from saying “I told you so.” (OK, maybe just a little.) This is an issue I have been talking and writing about for years. I think the only reason the US government made the decision to finally focus on it and target Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPU) as a poster boy for bad higher education behavior is because of the outstanding investigative reporting of BuzzFeed. I can assure you there are more where this came from. Oh, and NPU is nationally accredited by ACICS, which the US Department of Education has recommended be closed. Coincidence, anyone?
Congratulations to Molly Hensley-Clancy and her BuzzFeed colleagues!
A college on the edge of Silicon Valley has turned itself into an upmarket visa mill, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found, deploying a system of fake grades and enabling thousands of foreign students to enter the United States each year — while generating millions of dollars in tuition revenue for the school and the family who controls it.
Spending millions on foreign recruiters, Northwestern Polytechnic University enrolls 99% of its students — more than 6,000 overall last year — from overseas, with little regard for their qualifications. It has no full-time, permanent faculty, despite having a student body larger than the undergraduate population of Princeton.
The school issues grades that are inflated, or simply made up, so that academically unqualified students can keep their visas, along with the overseas bank loans that allow the students to pay their tuition. For two years, top college administrators forbade professors from failing any students at all, and the university’s president once personally raised hundreds of student grades — by hand.
Those false credentials are all the students need to stay in the country. Many seek jobs in the tech industry, and their degrees allow them to remain working in the U.S. for years, avoiding the scrutiny of immigration officials that would have come if they had applied for a standard work visa.
The university operates as a nonprofit, with all the tax benefits that status confers. But its assets, which topped $77 million in 2014, have enriched the family that has controlled it for decades. The school has purchased homes for family members to live in, one of which cost more than $2 million. When it comes to educating students, however, NPU has spent astonishingly little. The $1.5 million it paid for a home occupied by the executive vice president and his family was more than it reported spending on the combined salaries of the school’s entire faculty and staff in 2014.
Even the university’s academic accreditation — which the school relied on in order to admit a flood of foreign students — is suspect: When the accreditor came for a site visit, the university staged a Potemkin village of a college, enlisting instructors to pretend they were full-time professors, prepping students with false answers to inspectors’ questions, and once even hiring a fake librarian.
When a whistleblower handed over a letter detailing the college’s bad behavior, the accreditor asked for a thin explanation, accepted it at face value, and issued no sanctions.
NPU looks very different than the handful of unaccredited, for-profit visa mills that were exposed and shut down after a government crackdown in 2011. It has far more students, and they do attend classes with teachers. Some of its students say they got valuable educations.
NPU’s president, Peter Hsieh, and his second-in-command, Paul Choi, refused through a representative to answer any questions in person or by phone when a reporter came to the university’s campus and to a conference in Dallas where Choi was in attendance. Through the representative, Hsieh and Choi asked to speak with an editor to discuss potential legal action against a person they believed was a source for the article.
In response to BuzzFeed News’ detailed outline of the allegations in this story, Hsieh wrote that the school offers a high-quality education to future business and technology leaders and has made “significant strides” in his time as president. The university, he said, maintains its fiduciary responsibility to its students, investing in quality faculty and planning for facilities improvements.
The school “denies your allegations of impropriety,” Hsieh wrote. He said that the school is “designing new policies for proper grade differentiation and thoroughly investigating and addressing academic deficiencies” and has spent “hundreds of hours updating and improving financial practices.”
“We have taken your allegations – albeit unfounded – seriously”
“We do not believe this is the proper forum to discuss the intricacies and operational details of NPU,” Hsieh wrote. “That said, we have taken your allegations — albeit unfounded — seriously, and will give them careful attention.”
BuzzFeed News has examined a trove of internal university documents, including more than a thousand of pages of bank statements, emails, and student records, and interviewed more than a dozen current and former students, faculty, and staff.
What emerged is a portrait of a university that epitomizes many of the key weaknesses in the American higher education and immigration systems: an institution that has used its nonprofit status to enrich its leaders and used its accreditation to dodge more stringent national security requirements.
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