Koh Gui Qing, et al., Reuters, May 25, 2016
The advertisements were tailored for Chinese college students far from home, struggling with the English language and an unfamiliar culture.
Coaching services peppered the students with emails and chat messages in Chinese, offering to help foreign students at U.S. colleges do much of the work necessary for a university degree. The companies would author essays for clients. Handle their homework. Even take their exams. All for about a $1,000 a course.
For dozens of Chinese nationals at the University of Iowa, the offers proved irresistible.
Today, the University of Iowa, one of the largest state universities in the American Midwest, says it is investigating at least 30 students suspected of cheating. Three sources familiar with the inquiry say the number under investigation may be two or three times higher.
University spokespeople declined to name the students or comment on their nationality, citing academic privacy laws.
But those familiar with the investigation said that most, perhaps all, of the cheating suspects are Chinese nationals. They stand accused of cheating in online versions of at least three courses, including law and economics. Three of the Chinese suspects admitted to Reuters that they hired Chinese-run outfits to take exams for them.
The Iowa cheating rings are the latest evidence of how a vibrant East Asian industry is corrupting the U.S. higher education system by gaming entrance exams, concocting college applications and completing college coursework on behalf of students. These nimble operators not only help students cheat their way into universities. They also help them cheat their way through.
The companies are prospering by exploiting two intersecting interests: the growing demand by Chinese nationals to study overseas, and the desire by U.S. colleges to profit from foreign students willing to pay full tuition.
As Reuters reported in March, some companies are leveraging weaknesses in the SAT, a standardized college entrance exam, to help clients gain an unfair advantage on the test by feeding them questions in advance.
In addition, Reuters has identified companies in China that help students contrive their entire college application – embellishing or ghostwriting application essays, doctoring letters of recommendation from high school teachers, and even advising kids to obtain fake high school transcripts. Other providers continue the illicit assistance after admission, such as those that performed coursework for hire in Iowa City.
The cheating services extend far beyond Iowa. At the University of Washington, the University of Alabama and Penn State University, for example, students received Chinese-language advertisements by email this semester from unnamed firms. The pitch: Students could raise their grade point averages and graduate early if they hired the outfits to take classes and do assignments for them. The ads, reviewed by Reuters, offered a money-back guarantee. Students who didn’t get As would get refunds.
To help those students succeed, a multi-faceted industry is taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the U.S. higher education system. For colleges, vetting the applicants who use these services can be daunting. The case of Xuan “Claren” Rong shows why.
A native of Shenzhen, a city of about 11 million people on the Chinese mainland near Hong Kong, Rong spent part of high school in America. He entered the MacDuffie School, a boarding and day school in Granby, Massachusetts, as a ninth-grader in September 2011.
Reuters reviewed Rong’s transcript at MacDuffie, which the school verified as authentic. It shows his overall grade point average as of April 2014 was 2.8 out of 4 – about a B – though it was marred with Ds in Latin and Physics. Rong was supposed to graduate in 2015 but dropped out after his junior year.
In March 2014, he became a client of Cunshande, a company that helps Chinese students get accepted to top U.S. colleges. Cunshande, also known as Transcend Education, is located on the 25th floor of an office tower in the financial district of Shenzhen.
A receipt shows that Claren Rong’s parents paid about $13,700 to Transcend. With the company’s help, Rong applied to at least 15 U.S. colleges, emails reviewed by Reuters indicate. He was accepted in 2015 by the University of California, Davis.
In March 2015, more than a hundred U.S. colleges began receiving emails from an anonymous former Transcend employee. The emails included details about 40 Chinese applicants, including Rong.
“I am writing this e-mail to inform you that the student Xuan Rong … under the influence of Cunshande, a company which ghostwrites applications for Chinese students applying to American universities, committed application fraud,” the tipster wrote to some of the schools.
Admissions offices often lack the staff to pursue such red flags. At UC Davis, where Rong was admitted, 68,519 people applied to attend the school this fall. One of every five were international students. The school has just seven admissions officers on staff to vet those 13,560 international applicants.
Even so, an admissions officer at UC Davis, Mitsuko Leonard, did email the former Transcend employee, promising that “any real evidence you are able to provide will be considered.”
The tipster responded five days later, on March 30, 2015, offering information about 21 students in 217 attached documents. Leonard forwarded the material to the UC president’s office. “Yikes… this is from the anonymous source in China. Please review,” she wrote.
Most of the attachments were different versions of college essays that, the tipster claimed, had been doctored by Transcend employees. They included nine versions of an essay by Rong. The evolving drafts, reviewed by Reuters, display dramatic improvement in grammar and writing. The email also included a “Special Note” about where Rong attended high school.
The tipster alleged that Rong’s parents had obtained “a fake Chinese high school transcript” from a local Chinese high school to “hide his poor” average at MacDuffie. The attachments included his legitimate transcript from the Massachusetts school.
UC Davis didn’t contact the school at that time, and it admitted Rong.
Griffin, MacDuffie’s school head, said a UC Davis representative called months later, in late September, asking about Rong. The call came shortly after Reuters obtained, through a public records request, the correspondence between the admissions office and the Transcend tipster.
A UC Davis spokesman initially told Reuters the university couldn’t comment on specific students. He later said Rong would be leaving the university after the fall semester in December 2015.
Rong’s father also confirmed that his son submitted a bogus Chinese high school transcript. He said Transcend had advised his family to obtain a transcript from the Chinese high school because of his son’s low grade point average at MacDuffie.
Ketty Kang, director of the international department at Cuiyuan High School in Shenzhen, confirmed that the school issued a transcript for Rong showing he spent his sophomore and junior years there. “I should have added more information to say he wasn’t actually at the school for several years,” she said.
Li, the co-founder of Transcend, initially said he had no knowledge of the Chinese transcript for Rong. Reuters obtained a copy of the transcript, which was a Microsoft Word file. Its metadata – computer information about the document – showed that it had last been saved by Li. Shown a copy of the document and the metadata, Li conceded that Transcend had the fake transcript on file and that he had seen it before. But he said Transcend played no part in obtaining the document.
Li told Reuters the company does not ghostwrite applications. He also said Transcend doesn’t help students create teacher recommendations for themselves. Drafts seen by Reuters of more than 200 recommendation letters written for more than 50 Transcend students suggest otherwise.
The metadata on those documents indicates that they, too, had been stored on Transcend’s computers. Letters of recommendation are customarily confidential, and teachers rarely let anyone change them. The letters disclosed by the tipster bear signs of having been scripted or altered by students or Transcend employees.
Two of the recommendations are for Rong. Both claim he attended Cuiyuan High. One referred to his “outstanding academic performance.” In another, a teacher claimed he had taught Rong math in 11th grade and that he was “a great student.”
In a purported teacher’s recommendation for another student, Li commented in the margins, “This part needs to be expanded.” He added that two other paragraphs could be “combined into one and shortened so we have enough space for this expanded paragraph.”
Rong’s father said the family would now try to find another U.S. school for his son. He expressed no remorse about obtaining the fake Chinese transcript.
“We just wanted to get in a better school,” he said. “It’s normal. Anyone would do that.”
At Iowa, four or five so-called transcript evaluators review international applications from potential freshmen, according to a school spokesman. For the fall 2016 term, nearly 5,000 international students applied, leaving each of the admissions officers to scrutinize on average about a thousand applications.
In 2015, 4,540 international students were enrolled at Iowa. Of those, 2,797 were from China. That’s 9 percent of the school’s student body. Most or all of the students accused of cheating are Chinese nationals.