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Cash-for-grades Scam Highlights Dilemma For College Admissions


News that dozens of community college students in the San Francisco Bay Area may have been hitting their checkbooks rather than textbooks in a cash-for-grades scam highlighted an academic dilemma: What to do about cheaters?

College admissions officials say most students are honest. Still, the problem of shamming scholars, from juiced-up resumes to purloined prose, has prompted some administrators to start double-checking the veracity of student applications.

The idea of students shirking their way through college doesn’t surprise John Barrie, who runs an anti-plagiarism Web site called

“It’s become easier; it’s become a lot more prevalent,” he says. “It’s the ‘end justifies the means’ world these days.”

One of the latest cheating cases came at Diablo Valley and Los Medanos colleges in the Bay Area, where officials believe dozens of students paid as much as $600 to have their grades changed on the Contra Costa County Community College District’s computer.

The scheme was discovered in January 2006 and may go back to 2000, officials say. As many as 60 students may be involved and administrators believe as many as 400 grades were changed, some more than once.

The scam began soon after a new management system was installed and a student employee figured out how to change grades and later told others, the Contra Costa Times reported. Many suspected cheaters went on to transfer to four-year colleges, including some University of California campuses.

Prosecutors, who are considering whether to file charges, declined to comment on the pending investigation.

Scott Viebranz, a chief sales officer at Krolls security firm whose Global Academic Verification division vets applications for a number of top-ranked schools, says he can’t say empirically whether college cheats are on the rise. But “my opinion is that as the competition for these top-rated schools has become greater and as those positions have become more coveted, that there may be more of an impetus to fabricate.”

Viebranz’s company mainly serves graduate schools, and he says the vetting process routinely turns up discrepancies, including changing employment dates to cover gaps and inflating job titles.

Undergraduate applications haven’t come under the same level of scrutiny, although “we’re hearing a lot of discussion about how do we verify student applications and how do we ensure that what they’re giving us is correct,” Viebranz says.

In the UC’s 10-campus system, officials use a spot-check program that randomly selects about 10 percent of freshman applications — about 7,000 last year.

Selected students are asked to back up one claim — for instance, sending in a copy of a yearbook photo showing they really were class president. Officials also check transcripts sent in by high schools to see if the claimed and actual GPAs match.

Few applicants flunk the honesty test, says Susan Wilbur, UC’s director of undergraduate admissions. Last year, two or three students had their applications canceled as a result of ignoring the request or being unable to provide verification, and another handful were weeded out in the transcript check, she says.

“It just hasn’t been our experience that large numbers of students are falsifying their applications,” Wilbur says.

There’s no one system that undergraduate schools are using for verification, although a number use high-school-submitted transcripts as a benchmark, said David Hawkins, public policy director for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

In the Contra Costa case, a vetting program wouldn’t have helped ferret out cheaters.

Even now, officials at four-year universities where the suspected students transferred say they won’t be able to take any steps until Contra Costa district officials send out corrected transcripts.

No data are available on the amount of cheating going on. Experienced admissions officers say the numbers may be higher with more people applying, but the percentage of faked applications probably hasn’t changed much, Hawkins said.

“They say there was gaming of the system 20 and 30 years ago,” he said.

At the University of Texas at Austin, officials don’t routinely double-check application data, although they do look for red flags, such as an essay that’s streets ahead of a student’s English grades, said Bruce Walker, vice provost and director of admissions.

“At some point you have to develop trust in this process,” he said. “Is there cheating going on? Yes. Is it rampant and so much so that it is tilting our freshman class in the wrong direction? No.”

According to Barrie, his Web site regularly receives 100,000 papers to be checked each day and 30 percent show signs of copying. He thinks the issue of cheating students goes deeper than some want to acknowledge.

“Nobody wants to be the first person to step up and say, ‘You know what? There’s a problem and we’re going to do something about it,’” Barrie said. “Nobody knows what it’s going to look like when you turn over that rock.”

— Associated Press


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