Over 60,000 Fake Applications Submitted in Student Aid Scheme, California Says

For the briefest of moments, Adriana Brogger entertained the idea that her Instagram posts and other marketing efforts over the summer had caused an explosion in enrollment in the journalism class she teaches at a California community college, to 85 students from 15 only days before. “For, like, half a second,” the professor said. “Then I thought, ‘No, Adriana, this is shady.’”

Some sleuthing confirmed her suspicions. The new arrivals — whom she and a colleague termed “ghost students” — often had out-of-state addresses, had no history with the college and answered introductory questions in clearly fake ways, among other red flags.

Over the weekend, Ms. Brogger and the colleague, Tara Cuslidge-Staiano, sent a frustrated email to trustees and fellow faculty members at San Joaquin Delta College, in Stockton, complaining about what they saw as a lack of urgency in addressing a matter that was wreaking havoc on their teaching plans.

These fake students could hurt retention rates and lead to misinformed decisions about which courses to offer next semester, they wrote. Should instructors cancel classes overrun with ghost students and start new ones, even though the semester had already begun? How should they purge these infiltrators? How do they get back to serving real students?

“This constitutes major fraud and a huge enrollment problem if our hunch on this is right,” they wrote.

Their hunch was right.

Now, California officials believe that more than 60,000 fake applications for financial aid were submitted in the state’s community college system. The suspected fraud, which was reported by the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee, is being investigated by the college system and federal authorities.

In a statement on Wednesday, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office said it was investigating “suspicious activity related to potential college application and financial aid fraud.”

“We have been notified by some colleges that there may be ‘bot students’ in active courses,” the office said, adding that “any financial aid fraud is unacceptable and diverts resources away from deserving students who are seeking to improve their lives through a college education.”

When asked if any financial aid money had been doled out to the fake students, a spokesman said in an email, “We are not going to get into details at this time as this is an ongoing investigation.”

The Education Department’s Office of Inspector General is investigating the financial aid fraud, Catherine Grant, a department spokeswoman, said in an email.

She said that the agency had seen an increase in student financial aid fraud referrals since the pandemic but could not provide additional information “in order to protect and maintain the integrity of any current work.”

Around the time Ms. Brogger was panicking about her fall teaching plans, Patrick Perry, the director of policy, research and data for the California Student Aid Commission, noticed a trend that he was hopeful about.

He saw application growth in populations of students he wouldn’t normally expect it from: older students, low-income students, first-time students. Could it be that vulnerable students, battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, were starting to pour back into the community college system? Enrollment had declined in the community college system by 12 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the latest data available.

Mr. Perry started speaking with officials from the community college system and soon noticed chatter online about suspicious applications. Sure enough, digging into the data revealed “about 60,000 applications with repetitive addresses, lacking phone numbers and looking very suspicious and unlike what a financial aid record would look like,” he said on Wednesday.

According to Mr. Perry, fraud of this nature is easier to pull off at community colleges than at four-year institutions, because the two-year institutions don’t have admissions committees vetting applicants. And while colleges have had some fully virtual components for many years, the pandemic — which forced many colleges to operate entirely online — has provided the conditions for such schemes to flourish. “Somebody trying to perpetuate this would think this was a more likely time to try to get away with this,” Mr. Perry said.

He added that the next step for federal investigators should be to determine how widespread this conduct is and whether colleges elsewhere should be on the lookout.

The California community college system has been concerned about application fraud recently, according to a memo from the chancellor on Monday. In July, the system began using a bot-detection software on an application portal. Early indications suggest that about 20 percent of traffic on the portal “is malicious and bot-related,” officials reported.

Starting in September, the memo stated, accounts that use the portal and are associated with fraudulent activity will be suspended so that they can’t submit multiple applications. The college also will institute multiple layers of verification when registering so that students will need an email address or phone number before they can complete an application.

“This enhancement is not anticipated to present significant barriers for most real students,” the memo said.

Also starting this month, the Chancellor’s Office is requiring that colleges and districts submit monthly reports including the number of incidents of suspected registration or financial aid fraud as well as the amount of financial aid money a college had to return because of fraud.

In Mr. Perry’s view, the system worked just as intended: His office, college administrators, financial aid directors and professors all raised concerns about activity that didn’t seem right, ultimately leading to discovery of the scheme.

But Ms. Brogger, who felt as if her concerns weren’t being addressed as quickly as they should have been, said she was still frustrated that her college and the state didn’t put the pieces together sooner, calling it an example of how colleges are “siloed.”

“One hand isn’t talking to the other,” she said. “Moving forward, we really need to think critically about our systems, about our I.T. and about cybersecurity, certainly as online education continues to grow in relevance.”

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