The application essay from a student in China sounded much like thousands of others sent each year to the University of Washington at Seattle.
“‘I did this,’” admissions officer Kim Lovaas remembers the essay saying, and, “‘I did that.’” Then she came to a phrase that stopped her short: “Insert girl’s name here.”
“I thought, ‘Did I just read that?’” says Lovaas, associate director for international student enrollment, admissions, and services. “To me, that was a really big red flag.”
The obvious clue in the essay was an indicator of a serious problem that’s not always so easy to detect: fraudulent applications from Chinese students seeking to get into U.S. colleges and universities.
Admissions officials and others have reported finding falsified high school transcripts, discrepancies between English-language test scores and a Chinese student’s actual speaking ability, and phony letters of recommendation and essays.
As many as 90 percent of recommendation letters for Chinese applicants to Western universities were falsified in 2011, the most recent period studied, according to the U.S. educational consulting firm Zinch China. Seventy percent of admissions essays were written by someone other than the applicants, the firm found, and half of secondary school transcripts were doctored.
Zinch has not updated those figures, and estimates of the extent of cheating vary widely, but admissions officials said that at least as many as one in 10 Chinese applications may include fraudulent material.
“Nobody has reliable data on how much it happens,” says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education. However, he adds, there has been “a lot of discussion” at national meetings of registrars about preventing transcript fraud, an indication of the issue’s importance.
All of this is occurring as the number of Chinese applicants rises — and as U.S. colleges and universities recruit more of them, since the higher tuitions they pay help make up for flagging revenues from the states and from American students who require financial aid.
The number of Chinese students in the United States reached 235,597 in the 2012-2013 academic year, the last period for which the figure is available, up 21.4 percent from the year before, according to the Institute of International Education. That made China the top-sending country, responsible for more than one in four foreign students on U.S. campuses.
“There are a lot of Chinese students and parents trying to get into the best quality schools they can,” says Eddie West, director of international initiatives for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC. “Obviously there’s competition and incentives to cut corners, including submitting fraudulent applications.”
Chinese applicants often aren’t familiar with the complicated American admissions procedures, West says, since, in China, entrance to institutions of higher education is based entirely on a single test. They also must prepare for SAT and English-language proficiency exams, and fill out visa applications.
“There’s not a culture or practice of putting together admissions packages,” he says. “So third-party recruiters, unscrupulous recruiters among them, have moved into that space.”
Though there are nearly 500 recruiting agencies certified by the Chinese Education Ministry, thousands more operate outside of official scrutiny, West says. Chinese families pay them fees ranging from $6,000 to $10,000, with “bonuses” for admission to schools considered among the best, usually based on U.S. News & World Report rankings, according to Zinch.
Not even certification helps to lessen fraud, since many of the certified recruiters subcontract to uncertified ones, making it hard to know who’s doing what, said West.
As a result, higher education institutions and professional organizations have begun developing their own standards for certifying international recruiters.
“Clearly one of our standards is, ‘No falsifying applications and their parts,’” says John Deupree, executive director of the American International Recruitment Council.
But the council has certified only 65 recruiting organizations worldwide — a “drop in the bucket,” Deupree says. That’s because it was founded only in 2008, and is still fairly new, he said, and because the certification process is voluntary, with no regulatory authority behind it.
Chinese families pay fees to recruiters of up to $10,000, with bonuses for admission to schools considered among the best, according to the Zinch China consulting firm.
He said the number of recruiters seeking certification will rise as more U.S. universities and colleges require it.
In the meantime, however, the marked increase in Chinese applications to U.S. colleges and universities makes it hard for American admissions officers to keep up.
Jonathan Weller, director of international admissions at the University of Cincinnati, says the office in which he works didn’t even exist until seven years ago. Now it has five people working abroad, three of them in China.
“Up until 10 years ago,” Weller says, “most universities did not have international admissions staff.”
Efforts are being made to crack down on the fraud.
After a stint at educational consulting in China, where he says clients asked him to falsify essays, recommendation letters and transcripts, Chris Boehner founded Vericant, a company that interviews Chinese applicants face-to-face and provides videos of the conversations, along with supervised writing and speaking exercises.
At the University of Cincinnati, staff are quick to spot “students whose conversations with us show a lower level of English” than their English-language scores suggest, Weller says.
And at the University of Washington at Seattle, employees have developed relationships with certain high schools in China, and can quickly verify if transcripts are valid.
Lovaas and others note that, as widespread as cheating may be, most Chinese students who are accepted to U.S. institutions apply honestly, and tend to do well, which Deupree says points to another reason for increasing vigilance against fraud: “Not just because it’s a bad thing, but because institutions don’t want students to fail.”