Cheating the System: International Students and College Admissions [Opinion]

Many of my international students dream — their word — of going to college in the United States.

Each year, I work with dozens of students — the majority of whom are from China — as an independent educational consultant specializing in college and graduate school admissions.

What’s the problem?

While it is encouraging to know that higher education in the U.S. is favored on the world stage, my perspective allows me see a different picture, one that shows the lengths to which applicants are willing to go in order to gain acceptance to American colleges and universities. In my past experience in admissions, Chinese students, the most populous group of international college applicants, were — for the most part — regarded by admissions officers as "guilty until proven innocent" of cheating on their college applications. For instance, it was not uncommon for students with low TOEFL scores to submit highly polished essays, an inconsistency suggesting that the students did not actually compose the essays themselves.

In fact, the New York Times cited a report estimating that 90 percent of Chinese applicants engage in some form of college application fraud by falsifying academic transcripts, paying for letters of recommendation, or embellishing their lists of extracurricular activities. Because of the many possible parties involved in the preparation of college applications — schools, education agencies, and students themselves — it is difficult to track at what stage (or stages) such cheating might have occurred.

Why is it happening?

What I have found in my time working as an independent education consultant to international students is that many applicants simply don’t know what kind of preparation they need to be competitive for top-tier American institutions. Rather than creating original application materials, many students believe that cheating is the only option if they want a real shot at higher education in the U.S. And some colleges have sent the message that these students may be right.

Indeed, despite the prevalence of cheating, colleges have not publicly denounced application fraud. Because some institutions are struggling to meet yearly student enrollment and financial goals, bottom-line thinking seems to perpetuate an unwillingness to confront issues of cheating on college applications.

Certain institutions in particular stand to benefit financially from enrolling international students, who are typically ineligible for financial aid at most colleges (though some scholarships are available). International students therefore tend to pay full price for tuition, plus room and board. Issues of ethics aside, it is in a college’s best financial interest to enroll international students.

What is the consequence?

When colleges and universities in the U.S. overlook cheating on college applications, they sometimes admit students who are unable to complete college-level coursework and to compose original written material, skills for which — if they are lacking — students are later penalized. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that within one academic year, 8,000 Chinese students were expelled from U.S. colleges and universities for poor grades and cheating, but only after the students had paid their tuition and fees.

Enrolling students who cheat sends a message to international students that there is implicit acceptance — and even encouragement — of college application fraud in this country. Despite the risk of receiving counterfeit materials, many American colleges pay foreign enrollment agencies to recruit international students on their behalf. This practice and outcome suggests that some students who enroll in U.S. colleges and universities are ill-equipped to complete college coursework.

What can be done?

American colleges need to provide better explanations about (and examples of) their own expectations regarding integrity and American academic culture. It is only with a certain level of transparency that American college and university administrators will be able to bridge the gap between what international students and their families expect of the admissions process and the qualitative (extracurricular activities, essays, recommendations) and quantitative (GPA, academic rigor, test scores) standards that students are accountable for according to the admissions process.

One way to mitigate cheating is to require video interviews with applicants, as the interview service provider InitialView has recently popularized in China. Since colleges consider these interviews optional (and since they are only available at a cost to the applicant), however, this service has a limited ability to address communication gaps between applicants and institutions.

Another preventive measure may entail requiring international applicants to complete the redesigned SAT, which includes a timed writing section that colleges can request permission to see as supplementary application material. If a student can produce a strong writing sample from this test, then admissions officers may reasonably expect her to be fluent enough in English to carry on a basic conversation with a college representative. That said, the recent scandal concerning 15 Chinese nationals indicted for cheating demonstrates that even this solution does not address the larger problem of cheating and its implicit and explicit acceptance by applicants and some institutions.

What is the next step?

To overcome the mismatch between colleges’ values around academic integrity and the prevalence of application fraud, selective and top-tier universities must start a very difficult conversation to change the current dynamic. Only when top-tier colleges and universities are willing to speak out against cheating will others follow suit. One of the important steps that these universities can take is to explain the admissions process and to clarify expectations about academic integrity to a broader audience. While the gesture is not directly related to recruiting students, engaging in these difficult conversations is critical to the integrity and quality of the American system of higher education at large. Ultimately, however, these universities can only speak for themselves — larger authorities like the Common Application, College Board, or National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), would need to follow a harder line and work more closely with international agencies to align values and expectations with students’ submissions.

In the future, college admissions officers need to have difficult conversations about cheating with prospective college students and more public conversations with colleagues at other institutions. Only through this shared understanding will international students have a better opportunity to prepare for the application process and ultimately to succeed in American higher education.

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