As many high school seniors have been discovering, getting accepted by a top-tier U.S. college is no easy task. Young applicants have to crush their SATs or ACTs, write stellar essays, show impressive grades in challenging courses, have a full slate of extra-curricular activities, ace the interview — and hope that something in their application packet helps them stand out from everyone else. (Whew.)
Harvard just announced its most competitive admissions year ever. The Ivy League school granted acceptance to a mere 2,037 students out of an applicant pool of 39,041 — for a 5.2 percent acceptance rate.
Columbia had a 6 percent acceptance rate this year — Yale, a 6.3 acceptance rate.
Now, American students with their eyes on the Ivys have yet another obstacle to face. Chinese students outside this country clamoring to get into a U.S. institution are hiring scammers, known as gunmen, to take tests such as the SAT, the GRE (the graduate school admissions test), and the English proficiency exam.
Gunmen pose as Chinese students who are either not proficient in the English language, not smart enough to score well on collegiate-level qualifying exams, or both — and help earn their clients those all-important acceptance letters.
Jasmine Huang (not her real name) was asked by someone she knew in China to be a gunman. She is currently studying at Harvard University on an F1 visa.
“I was very disappointed in this person when they asked me,” Huang told LifeZette. “He called and approached me, asking if I would take a test for a kid to allow him to get into college. I think he [the broker] has done this a few times. I didn’t do it, of course. Recently I talked to him, and he’s not doing as much — he said it’s getting harder.”
She suspects that those who monitor the test locations are also in on the scam.
“If I had participated, I would have taken the ID I was given, and gone to the test,” said Huang. “And although the person checking IDs would probably know it wasn’t actually me, he had probably talked to the broker, and together they arranged for me to take the test.”
Such ill-gotten gains cost a pretty penny.
"It can cost as much as $10,000 to hire someone to fraudulently take a test for an applicant," said Huang. "And if the score the person wants does not happen, they don’t pay."
Just as a whole industry has sprouted overseas to abuse the applications process here in the U.S. — another industry has begun to stop it. Companies such as InitialView and Vericant help colleges such as Stanford, Georgia Tech, N.Y.U., Duke, and Columbia vet overseas applicants and verify their identities.
"Hiring test-taking proxies has been a widespread practice in China for a long time," Terry Crawford, who runs InitialView, told The Hechinger Report. "With so many Chinese students wanting to study in the U.S., it’s natural that these fraudulent practices are spreading here, where security is comparatively low."
Last year, 15 former and current U.S. college students originally from China were arrested in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and pled guilty to attempting to scam the applications system. They arranged test-takers for friends or took the tests for others. Most of them will be deported.
"During our investigation it became clear the scope of the scam is very broad," David Hickton, U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania, told The Hechinger Report. "The networks we uncovered are obviously meant to serve a much larger group than these 15 students."
American colleges and universities were home to over 300,000 Chinese students last year, according to the Institute of International Education — an almost 11 percent increase from the year before. Those are spots that could have gone to our own students, of course.
Education equals prestige in many Chinese families.
"It is very important to Chinese parents to have their kids go to a top-ranking college," said Jasmine Huang. "And they are more than willing to pay these high fees, and hope their child can come out four years later with a big degree."
Chinese students often come from wealthy families. For over 10 years U.S. colleges have welcomed applications from overseas because these students are willing to pay additional fees on top of full tuition — and rarely ask for financial aid.
"Ultimately, the buck stops with U.S. institutions," Eddie West, director of international initiatives for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told the Boston Globe. "There’s a reason you see the success of these verification agencies. That’s a manifestation of the problem."
Chinese websites advertising the services of test-taking proxies in the U.S. are growing rapidly.
"These services are not exactly underground," New York defense lawyer Anna Demidchik told The Hechinger Report. Demidchek’s law firm represented Quifan Chen, a wealthy University of Connecticut student, who recently pleaded guilty to having a gunman take his GREs for him in December 2014.
"Some brokers will only take clients if they are referred by another student. Others will take customers after a brief electronic negotiation," says Demidchek.
In the past year alone, the College Board, the non-profit organization that develops and administers standardized tests in the U.S., delayed many scores from four of the seven times the test was administered in Asia while it investigated cheating suspicions. The board takes various measures to curb fraud, as does the company that administers the English proficiency test.
But illegal test-taking still looms.
"This is unfair to students who study hard, follow the rules, and hope to go to a good school," said Jasmine Huang. "It’s just not right."
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