Asia’s rampant cheating problem

Determined to get into U.S. colleges, more and more students turn to fake transcripts, essays and SAT scores

Topics: GlobalPost, China, Education, ,

Asia's rampant cheating problemStudents attend their college graduation ceremony in Shanghai's Fudan University July 2, 2011. (Credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

BANGKOK, Thailand — From sleep to social lives, there is little Asia’s most upwardly mobile students won’t sacrifice for education. Though they belong to the so-called “Asian Century,” American colleges remain the premier destination for the elite from Shanghai to Singapore to Seoul.

Global Post

The path to U.S. college acceptance, however, increasingly compels students to sacrifice their integrity. For the right price, unscrupulous college prep agencies offer ghostwritten essays in flawless English, fake awards, manipulated transcripts and even whiz kids for hire who’ll pose as the applicant for SAT exams.

“Oh my God, they can do everything for you,” said Nok, 17-year-old Thai senior in her final year at a private Bangkok high school. (She asked GlobalPost to alter her name for this article.) “They can take the SAT for you, no problem. Most students don’t really think it’s wrong.”

Among Asian high society, and particularly in China, parents’ obsession with sending their offspring to U.S. colleges has given rise to a lucrative trade of application brokers. Depending the degree of assistance, families can expect to pay between $5,000 and $15,000.

“The parent says, ‘My kid needs this GPA but, frankly, his scores aren’t that strong.’ Then the unscrupulous agent says ‘Don’t worry. We’ll figure that out,’” said Tom Melcher, chairman of Zinch China and author of a Chinese-language book on choosing American colleges.

A 250-student survey by Zinch China, a Beijing wing of the California-based Zinch education consultancy, suggests college application fraud among Chinese students is extremely pervasive. According to the survey, roughly 90 percent of recommendation letters to foreign colleges are faked, 70 percent of college essays are ghostwritten and 50 percent of high school transcripts are falsified.

“For the right price,” Melcher said, “the agent will either fabricate it or work with the school to get a different transcript issued.” Admission into a top 10 or top 30 school, as defined by the U.S. News & World Report, can bring a $3,000 to $10,000 bonus for the agent, he said. The magazine, Melcher said, is commonly confused in China for an official government publication.



Demand for such agents is high and getting higher. Rapid economic growth across China and other parts of Asia has sparked an explosion in foreign students hoping to secure their ascent with a Western diploma.

Chinese citizens currently account for more than one in five foreign students studying at U.S. colleges. Nearly 158,000 Chinese students are enrolled at any given time, a full 300 percent jump over mid-1990s numbers, according to the Institute of International Education.

Chinese, Indian and South Korean students comprise roughly half of America’s foreign college student population. Vietnam has sent 13 percent more students to the U.S. within the last year, and Malaysia has added 8 percent, the institute reports.

But many American college officials are oblivious to the application fix-it men these foreign students may have paid back home. Worse yet, remaining blind to the deception is often financially incentivized.

America’s economic downturn has drained the state tax coffers that provide a funding lifeline to many U.S. colleges. Many schools have resorted to unpopular tuition hikes. But many are also courting wealthy foreign students whose families gladly fork over money for housing and tuition along with out-of-state or even out-of-country fees.

“International students are seen as a source of revenue … and the trend has exploded in the past two years,” said Dale Gough, international education director for AACRAO, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Foreign students, through tuition and living expenses, contribute $2.1 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. “In short,” Gough said, “they help the bottom line.”

Excuses abound for ignoring fraudulent applications, Gough said. Some assume that kids who cheat will inevitably flame out anyway and never score a degree. Some admissions officers, he said, contend that “that’s just the way it’s done over there.”

Many schools also make sloppy attempts to translate foreign transcripts, calculated by an “indigenous” and unfamiliar methodology, into America’s GPA or “grade point average” system, Gough said.

His association publishes a guide to deciphering foreign scores, the only one of its kind, but fewer than 500 of the 3,500 institutions represented by AACRAO bother to buy a copy.

“Translating foreign grades into a GPA system is meaningless,” Gough said. “They attempt to do it anyway.”

Gough fears that universities’ lax standards, and focus on big foreign tuition payments, will eventually undermine the pedigree of an American diploma. The damage, he said, would be nearly impossible to undo.

“This scenario spells disaster,” Gough said. “Even if a lot of the students who cheat are bright, and they go on to succeed, is this fair to American students? Or [to] the foreign students who play by the rules?”

While America has ceded manufacturing power and foreign influence to China, an American degree remains the gold standard of educational prestige. Nok, who is currently applying for colleges abroad, never considered applying to universities in Asia.

“Students who study in America are elite, the privileged,” said Nok. “It shows you’re smarter than the others.”

But like most Asian students, Nok has felt baffled and overwhelmed by America’s complex application system.

“Here, you take a big test one day and report the score. That’s how you figure out where you’ll go to college,” she said. “The Americans are different. They want to know the big picture. All these essays. All this stuff about your life.”

America’s liberal arts application system is “fundamentally more confusing,” said Joshua Russo, director of Top Scholars, a college prep and tutoring agency in Bangkok.

Asian families unfamiliar with the process, he said, are justified in seeking an agency’s help with application strategies and tutoring to build the skills U.S. colleges demand. But Russo’s refrain to parents, he said, is that kids who can’t write their own essays are likely to burn out once enrolled in America.

“Some consultants will promise the world … and they’re fundamentally preparing students to fail,” Russo said. “Beyond fabricating an essay, they’re fabricating a whole life story. Students will start to believe in the lie. It’s wrong.”

The allure of America’s universities, and the pressure-cooker drive to succeed among Asia’s expanding upper class, will continue to propel Asian students into American schools. Many Chinese teenagers applying abroad, Melcher said, are the sort of highly motivated students colleges desire.

“Chinese kids are typically great,” Melcher said. “They’re not at the tailgate parties drinking. They’re busting their butts. Failure is not an option.”

But college application fraud will continue, he said, so long as the risks are low and the rewards are so high. His consultancy suggests interviewing all Chinese students via online video chats, conducting spot tests in English, and hiring a mainland Chinese staffer in the college’s home office.

“Frankly, I feel really bad for Chinese families who are trying to be honest,” he said. “They’re driving 55 while everyone’s zooming past them. After a while, they throw up their hands and say, ‘Fine, I’ll speed up.’”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>