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Opening the door to American universities with lies

A wall of posters advertising companies that help students apply to foreign universities

There’s a growing perception that American universities are admitting Chinese students based on fraudulent applications. How big is this problem, and who is responsible for it? Tim Hathaway investigated the problem for the Southern Weekly, and this is what he found:

April Xu studied jazz dance for a time.  She thought this would be good to mention on her applications to foreign master’s degree programs.  After all, many foreign universities don’t just look at test scores.  They also take into account a person’s background and abilities.  It’s a comprehensive selection process.

However, she was unfamiliar with this process and felt time was tight, so like a majority of Chinese students with aspirations of studying abroad, she paid someone to help her, especially with the statement of purpose.

“He wrote that I had performed at a school gala but this was an exaggeration.  After I finished reading it, I said I felt a little nervous or even dishonest because the event I danced at was much smaller,” April Ke said.

“But he told me that this is nothing, that there are students who inflate grades or have others take tests for them.”

There has been a rush to study abroad over the last few years.  Chinese students are the largest group on American campuses, with 40,000 in undergraduate and 66,000 in graduate programs in 2010.  There has been a proliferation of Chinese applications to U.S. universities over the past few years and with that, a rise in application fraud that has overwhelmed admissions offices across the United States and hurt the reputation of China abroad.

“If the perception is that Chinese applicants are not honest that reflects poorly on China.  And I think the perception is Chinese applicants are not honest,” said Sarah Smith, an American education expert based in Beijing.

Ms. Smith provides advice to American universities on how to deal with suspicious Chinese applications.  Although, she is quick to point out that most Chinese students are excellent and the legitimate ones may suffer due to the actions of a few.

The causes of application fraud are complex. It is not just limited to a few unscrupulous people, but also desperate parents, poorly trained admissions offices, increasing competition, and the lack of transparency of the American education system. However, the main facilitators of fraud are Chinese education intermediaries: companies that make their money by “guiding students through the application process..

What school wants to make things difficult for its students?

American universities expect students to fill in their own applications, write a statement of purpose, obtain authentic recommendation letters and send transcripts and standardized test scores.  However, intermediary companies, let’s call them application consultancies, are only paid if students are admitted.

“Once the contract is signed the students are told that not only should they not worry, they’re not allowed to access their own application materials.  They’re not allowed to handle the email correspondence with admissions offices,” said Meng Jiasi, a former employee of application consultancy USA Daxue.

“We just tell them to write [personal statements] in Chinese and we have people that translate it,” he said.  “But I would say a high percentage of the essays in Chinese were not written by the students at all.  They were written by my coworkers…. or they took essays from previous years that were successful and tweaked them.”

If time is tight and one’s work experience is lacking, Mr. Du at application consultancy Oxbridge International says that his company can arrange a three week internship at HSBC (汇丰银行), but write on the application that it lasted three months.  Furthermore, if the client opens an account for international transactions with a significant deposit at that bank or any other, it will be possible to obtain proof of the internship and even a letter of recommendation. “We’ve been working together for years, and it’s been a happy cooperation at that,” he said.

American graduate schools often require sample essays and recommendations from people in the applicant’s field of study.

“Each one requires three to four essays, so if you apply to ten schools that’s 30 to 40 total.  These written materials are very important.  We have staff in China and abroad who help complete these for you,”  said Ms. Bai of application consultancy Wiseway International.  She said her staff in San Francisco can help with recommendation letters as well.

“Most of them are from different fields,” she said.  “They can find people from your major.”

“The most basic factor behind fraud is the white hot competition,” said Liu Peng, who has been working in the industry for over five years.  “The one’s who decide to do it are the students and parents.”

Many American universities want more international students and are eager to find reliable partners because they do not have the resources to recruit overseas on their own.

The American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) was established in 2008 in order to bring regulation to the industry.  Only eleven agents operating in China have received accreditation.

Wiseway International has been accredited since 2010.  When asked if U.S. universities will check the veracity of written documents, Ms. Bai said, “That’s not likely.  Unless you make up some international award, they don’t usually follow up.  You don’t need to worry about that.”

Transcript alteration is one of the most common forms of fraud among applicants, especially for undergraduate programs.  Agents themselves do not usually recommend this action in order to avoid legal responsibility.  However, once a client obtains the school’s consent, an agent sometimes makes specific changes in order to meet the GPA (grade point average) requirements of the schools the student is applying to.  After the changes are made, the parents have the schools notarize the documents.

“Schools almost always notarize them because you’re going to study abroad.  They’re very willing to help.  What school would want to make it difficult for you to do this,” said Ms. Chen from China Education International, another application consultancy that is also accredited by AIRC.

Discrimination can be “troubling”

“We have received word from various faculty across the university that a number of these [Chinese] students are ill-prepared for NYU, and have had disappointing classroom participation skills,” said an admissions counselor at New York University.  It is updating its policy on fraud this year mainly due to the experience with Chinese students.  However, she is unfamiliar with some standard practices among Chinese agents.

The admissions counselor said that NYU uses email to verify a student’s English ability.  When asked if she was aware that agents regularly impersonate applicants, she said she was “uncomfortable” answering such questions and declined further comment.

Despite widespread frustration over application fraud, dozens of universities declined comment for this article.  According to two industry experts, this is because they are unsure what to do about it.  They do not want to be seen as inept, nor do they want to be seen as criticizing China.

There is no way to ascertain if Chinese fraud is in fact worse than that of other countries, but since Chinese applications outnumber all others, this has become the perception.

The problem of application fraud is compounded by the fact that most American universities simply are unable to deal appropriately with foreign applications, including functions as basic as evaluating credentials.

“You’ve got schools admitting people quite literally to graduate schools who only have a high school diploma, because they misunderstood what the credential represented.  And you have people with degrees that are being rejected because they don’t understand that the degree is in fact comparable to a US bachelor’s degree,” said Dale Gough, director of International Education Services at American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).

“The sad fact is that most [American] institutions do not have staff trained or are equipped with the necessary resources to do a credible job in evaluating foreign credentials.”

Mr. Gough provides training in international credential verification and warns that it is a problem in every country.  In fact, he says international students ought to be wary of American diploma mills. (There are 3,500 accredited institutions in the United States.  Accrediting agencies are all independent.  The Department of Education does not have authority over their programs and cannot revoke accreditation.)

In China, the China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Center (CDGDC) is the official agency responsible for maintaining the integrity of Chinese graduate education.  In addition to evaluating graduate programs, they also verify diplomas and transcripts.  It operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Education.

According to Assistant Director Wang Lisheng, the problem of fake transcripts and diplomas in China began in the late 1990’s when students began studying abroad without government support.  The government set up this office in order to assist foreign institutions and ensure the integrity of Chinese diplomas abroad.

“Premier Wen Jiabao has said repeated that we need to do this well.  We need to manage our education credentials well and not let this cause problems abroad,”  he said.

CDGDC currently has cooperative relationships with several dozen countries and organizations around the world.  In February, CDGDC signed a cooperative agreement with AACRAO and in June Wang Lisheng gave a presentation at the NAFSA’s annual conference in Vancouver in early June, an event attended by many American universities.

One of the most hotly debated topics among professionals at organizations like NAFSA is whether or not universities should contract with agents to recruit international students.  Supporters say most schools have no other way to recruit, and oversight from AIRC and local governments can ameliorate the problems.  Opponents believe there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest.  Who is to say an agent is not going to send highly qualified students to lower ranked universities simply because of the financial incentive?

Ironically, the debate over how best to internationalize a campus has been decidedly solipsistic.  It is centered on the needs of universities and what relationship they ought to have with agents.  It has ignored students and their families who see a need for this kind of service.

Nearly two out of every three current undergraduate students from China has paid an intermediary to help gain admission to American universities, according to a recent study funded by Dr. Zhang Yi for the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at USC.

Dr. Zhang, a Zhengzhou native, said that one surprising finding is that many of the students who did not pay for these services still benefited from them, making intermediaries an integral part of the application process for the vast majority of Chinese students.  They utilized information from  consultants from web sites, open seminars, and free consultations.

There are several thousand application consultancies across the country.  A typical full service contract may cost families up to 60,000 yuan, if accepted to a top tier school; and 25,000 yuan for one that is not in the top 100 according to U.S News and World Report rankings.  There are currently about 273,000 Chinese students in America, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand.  If only half of them used agents and paid an average of 25,000 yuan, then the educational intermediary industry in China alone is well over $100 million per year.

Dr. Zhang Yi interviewed dozens of students already enrolled at American universities. They agreed that enough information is available for them to apply on their own but they often don’t know where to find it or if it is reliable.

“It’s there but the information is difficult to access,” Dr. Zhang said. “I think that universities in the U.S. should acknowledge the influence and the positive impact of the agencies on students’ applications.”

This situation would not exist if the U.S. did not use the comprehensive evaluation system which dates back to the 1920s. The system has its origins at a time when officials were afraid alumni would be upset if large numbers of Jews or Catholics were admitted.  Future students might choose another university.  So in addition to an entrance exam, officials based admission decisions on subjective data such as personal background and recommendation letters.  The American admissions process is not transparent and was never meant to be.

In 2003 the Supreme Court made the controversial ruling that race or ethnicity is an acceptable reason for admission decisions in the name of affirmative action.  If universities revealed the subjective and sometimes capricious reasons for admissions decisions, there would undoubtedly be a torrent of litigation.  This secrecy acts as a legal shield over universities’ own conflicts of interests.  For example, it is well known that some universities give preference to students who can pay full tuition, which is one reason Chinese students are more and more attractive to foreign universities.

But this secrecy also hides their inability, or even incompetence, when detecting fraud.  It is possible that many Chinese students are being rejected merely on the suspicion of falsified materials.

How many U.S. institutions err on the side of caution by rejecting applicants without proof of fraud?  Does the fear of fraud produce an unconscious bias against Chinese students?

Dr. Linda Serra Hagedorn, a professor and associate dean of undergraduate programs at Iowa State University, researches and publishes her work on international students with her coauthor Dr. Zhang Yi. She agreed that these questions are nearly impossible to answer:

“I sometimes get very troubled with what I see as discrimination against specifically Asian students,” said Dr. Hagedorn of her three decades of experience in American academia.  “That’s one more area that we could pursue and do additional research.”

“I’d rather spend two years studying abroad than in China”

Chinese parents and students should do research as well if they have plans to study abroad.  Dr. Zhang said that students realized many services were unnecessary. For example, obtaining a visa is quite simple and does not require professional assistance. Another nearly universal complaint is the difficulty of finding a trustworthy agent.

Parents need to be wary of agents who do not admit contractual relationships with foreign schools, according to Sarah Smith.

“The greatest harm,” she says is, “when you see a kid being sent to an American school that is of dramatically lower quality than that kid could have gone to simply because the agent doesn’t have a commercial relationship to that school.”

When evaluating an agent, parents should not ask how many clients have been accepted by elite schools; this may be untrue and in fact is irrelevant to their child.  Instead, Ms. Smith recommends parents ask three questions: What is your economic relationship to these foreign universities (do not sign a contract if they refuse to answer); How often and how many of your staff physically visit US universities; and what are your policies related to fraud?

Another problem may be the use of U.S. News and World Report rankings, which most agent fees are based on.  Though they are quite influential and considered authoritative, many experts believe the rankings are flawed and even biased against smaller schools, which are not nationally known but have excellent regional reputations.  The U.S. government does not provide official rankings.

There are also risks for parents and students who are tempted to alter transcripts or allow agents to exaggerate their abilities.

In addition to creating a black stain on the image of the nation, individual schools who regularly change transcripts gain a negative reputation in the admissions community, making it harder for legitimate students.  Admissions personnel are well aware of the most unreliable schools.

Those who grossly exaggerate their abilities often fail out, creating a loss of face for them and their families.  But for most students the only repercussion is a rejection letter and for those who are accepted, perhaps a stain on one’s conscience.  If schools discover fraud after acceptance, they generally do not take action.   Schools do not want to punish the students when the culprit may well have been the parents or an agent.  However, students who commit financial aid or scholarship fraud are very likely to be expelled.

For those who need information about financial aid, EducationUSA is an organization sponsored by the United States government which can answer any questions about studying abroad.  There are over 400 offices worldwide.  It is the closest thing America has to China’s Confucius Institutes because its mandate is to promote U.S. education as a means to understanding the country and is values.  It is primarily an information service but also provides training in things such as how to write a personal essay.

Lauryne Massinga, Ed.D., director of EducationUSA in Beijing, says her organization is a viable alternative to agents because they provide  “all the necessary tools, information, and advice” for DIY.   For example, her staff can easily show students how to tell if a university is in fact a diploma mill.  All services are free and primarily in Chinese, and they do not currently accept funds from students or universities.

“I haven’t come across any family or any student that couldn’t do it themselves,” said Dr. Massinga who has been in the Beijing office for nearly two years.

Clearly, however, EducationUSA with its 10 person staff will not be able to dramatically reduce the market for agents any time soon.  These companies’ services are likely to exist as long as demand for a foreign education far exceeds that of domestic education.

The number of Chinese students studying abroad continues to rise with people like April Xu.  She didn’t want to pay hefty fees for an agent, nor did she want to exaggerate her personal statement.  But she did it anyway and succeeded.  She will attend a graduate program in journalism in Boston in September and start the next chapter in her life.

“Many classmates choose to take the entrance exams for Chinese graduate programs, but I always felt that domestic programs don’t offer anything special,“ said April Xu.  “I’d rather spend two years studying abroad than in China.”

 

NOTE: This article first appeared in Chinese in Southern Weekly on August 25, 2011.  The original version is here.  Fang Kecheng and Xu Ke contributed to this article.  Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees.

Tim Hathaway is a regular contributor to Southern Weekly.  His column with article and commentary translations in English can be found here.