Study finds foreign student program rife with corruption

The Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., released in June a very damning evaluation of the Foreign Student Program. Conducted by George Borjas, Pforzheimer Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the evaluation finds the program rife with corruption and failing abysmally at achieving its advertised benefits.

“The foreign student program needs radical surgery,” Borjas writes. “The INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] has little control over the number and type of students being admitted; the program is littered with corruption and fraud; and many education institutions with the authority to admit foreign students look and act an awful lot like ‘visa-for-sale’ storefronts.”

In the report, available online at, Borjas describes how tracking of foreign students by the INS is practically nonexistent. As Borjas shows, the INS is incapable of even determining exactly how many foreign students enter the country in a given year, let alone know how many are in the country at any given time. Worse, there is no tracking of foreign students once they’re in the country, Borjas notes. Schools are not required to report when a foreign student has enrolled in the program for which he received the visa, nor are they required to provide updates on the student’s academic status. Such lack of oversight makes the student visa program ideal and easy for foreigners to enter and remain in the U.S. as illegal aliens.

The nadir of the INS’s lack of control over the foreign student program has to be when the INS mailed out official approval of the student visas of Mohammed Atta and another of the terrorists in the planes Sept. 11 — six months after their attacks. Another terrorist, Hani Hasan Hanjour, had received a student visa to study English in California, but he didn’t even attend one class.

This colossal bureaucratic blunder tells Borjas that the INS “had not learned the lesson from the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Borjas explains how President Jimmy Carter considered the possibility of expelling Iranian students on American soil and asked the INS to tell him how many students that order would affect. “The INS could not provide that number during the entire 444 days of the crisis,” Borjas writes. “And the INS still has no way of determining how many foreign students are present in the United States” (emphasis in original).

Another problem highlighted by Borjas is the “implausibly large number” — about 73,000 — of U.S. schools certified by the INS to accept foreign students. He points out that there are “only about 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, at most 6,000 more state-accredited vocational schools, and only 24,000 secondary schools.” Borjas writes that “the United States has delegated its legitimate role of selecting the immigrant flow to thousands of privately run entitities whose incentives need not coincide with the national interest.” As he shows, foreign students provide universities with low-salaried research staff and teaching assistants, and they also fill the coffers of the thousands of vocational and language schools. The “incentives for corruption” are so great that firms compete to place prospective foreign students.

As for the benefits the U.S. receives from the program, Borjas finds three: a permanent increase in the skilled workforce in the U.S. from the 13 percent of foreign students who choose to stay; contributions to the U.S. workforce from foreign students employed particularly as research, lab, and teaching assistants at universities; and tuition revenues from foreign students.

But what of the costs? “The United States has traditionally banned the export of goods it considers vital to its national security, such as supercomputers, encryption technology, or material that can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction,” Borjas writes. “Yet there is no similar ban on the type of knowledge that can be acquired in American universities.”

One compelling example he cited was a recent study of foreign students by Georgia State University professors Paula Stephan and Grant Black that found, among other things, between 1981 and 1999, persons on student visas from “countries that are now targeted for increased security monitoring, including such countries as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen” received 111 doctorates in nuclear and organic chemistry — “40 of them going to Iraqi students.” Also, students from those countries received “434 doctorates in chemical and nuclear engineering, with 106 going to Iraqis; and 112 doctorates in atomic and nuclear physics, with 31 going to Iraqis.”

As Borjas writes, “Once one stops mindlessly humming the ‘Ode to Diversity’ that plays such a central role in the modern secular liturgy — and particularly so in higher education — it is far from clear that the program generates a net benefit for the United States.” The economic benefit from it, he argues, is “more than offset by the tuition subsidy that taxpayers grant to foreign students enrolled in public universities.”

Borjas calls for a reevaluation and a restructuring of the program. He writes that the “remarkably powerful combination of INS ineptitude and the higher-education sector’s greed perverted what would have seemed to be a sensible and noble effort into an economically dubious proposition and a national security fiasco.”