Home Trends in Higher Education Finding Fake Students: The Law of Unintended Consequences
Finding Fake Students: The Law of Unintended Consequences

Finding Fake Students: The Law of Unintended Consequences

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Last week, Los Angeles Times reporters Teresa Watanabe and Colleen Shalby co-authored an article indicating that more than 65,000 fake students applied to community colleges in California over the past few months.

The article indicates that a California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) official, Patrick Perry, had begun a routine check of federal aid records when he noticed that there were 60,000 more aid applications this year versus last year for a specific profile of applicants. The profile was first time applicants, older than 30, who earned less than $40,000 and were seeking a two-year degree, not a certificate. These applicants were spread across the California Community College System and had applied to 105 of the 116 campuses.

Mr. Perry, the director for the CSAC, states that he did not know if any financial aid was distributed. However, he also believes that the fake student fraud was caught before “much, if any, aid was distributed.”

The article further reports that faculty members at institutions had begun questioning whether the students who had registered for their online courses were real or not. One journalism professor reported that after screening for fraudulent students, her class is down to six legit students from the total of 45 who had registered.

The similarities in this case remind me of the roughly four-year period (2010-2014) when online programs were pursued by Pell runners. The most frequently pursued programs were at the lowest tuition schools, which were generally community colleges but not in all cases. American Public University System (APUS), the institution that I led, discovered similar fake “students.”

Automated screening systems have been put in place by many institutions with online programs to look for information that could identify fake students, such as:

  • Similar physical addresses and phone numbers used by multiple students
  • Similar URLs for the computer that a student used to apply and register for aid
  • Limited activity in classes
  • Similar or plagiarized answers to assignments like introductions

If there are criminals involved with fraud rings, it’s no surprise that they have become more sophisticated. The article mentions that the California Community College System is beefing up its internal reporting and security measures after noting that “20% of the recent traffic on its portal for online applications was ‘malicious and bot-related.’”

Given the size of the California Community College System and the numbers of students that its 116 colleges enroll, I would not be surprised if it is eventually disclosed that some funds were disbursed to whatever group is perpetrating this fraud.

During the period of Pell runners, the Department of Education cooperated with institutions to determine and clarify what policies they could put in place to reduce the opportunities for nefarious characters to perpetrate fraud.

In addition to the automated screening systems I mentioned earlier, some institutions requested copies of drivers’ licenses and utility bills in order to manually check that the information submitted matched some form of government documentation and other information linking the students’ names to their addresses. It took months and years in some cases to implement changes in policies, as well as to modify institutional student information systems to accommodate those changes.

One of the changes that the Department of Education made was to increase the frequency of requests for institutions to verify tax returns before approving financial aid disbursements for online students. In July of 2021, the Department indicated that it was going to reduce the frequency of verification requests to make it easier for at least 200,000 low-income students to gain access to federal aid.

The same day that the LA Times reported on these community college fake students, the Washington Post reported that the Department was changing its mind on easing the verification requests. I doubt that the timing of that announcement was coincidental.

One additional payment source added to the financial aid funding is the COVID-19 relief money authorized for college students. Given the relatively recent availability of these funds and the frequently changing guidance for eligibility and disbursement of these funds, it is possible that the organizer(s) of this fraud schemed to take advantage of the fact that much of the work to distribute these funds is manual and not automated. It does not have the appropriate checks and balances like distribution of Pell grant checks.

If some funds have been distributed to the criminals perpetrating this fraud, I hope the Department of Education and California provide details to all colleges and universities offering online courses and programs. Based on my experiences, I have a feeling that the fake student registrations were not directed at only California’s community colleges. Hopefully, every institution offering an online degree program is sifting through their recent application data to see if any similar instances exist.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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