More than 60,000 bogus student aid applications submitted, according to California

For a brief moment, Adriana Brogger had the idea that her Instagram posts and other marketing efforts over the summer had caused an expl...

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

Detectives have confirmed his suspicions. The newcomers – which she and a colleague referred to as “ghost students” – often had out-of-state addresses, had no history with college, and answered introductory questions clearly in the wrong way, among other things. alarm signals.

Over the weekend, Ms Brogger and her colleague, Tara Cuslidge-Staiano, sent a frustrating email to administrators and other faculty members at San Joaquin Delta College, Stockton, complaining that they saw a lack of urgency in dealing with an issue that was ravaging their educational plans.

These bogus students could hurt retention rates and lead to uninformed decisions about what courses to offer next semester, they wrote. Should instructors cancel overcrowded classes with ghost students and start new ones, even though the semester has already started? How should they purge these infiltrators? How do they come back to serving real students?

“This constitutes a major fraud and a huge registration problem if our hunch is correct,” they wrote.

Their intuition was right.

Today, California officials believe more than 60,000 bogus applications for financial aid have been submitted through the state’s community college system. The suspected fraud, which was reported by the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee, is under investigation by the college system and federal authorities.

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

“We have been advised by some colleges that there may be ‘student bots’ in active courses,” the office said, adding that “any financial aid fraud is unacceptable and diverts resources from deserving students who seek to improve their lives through a university education. “

When asked if financial aid was distributed to the bogus students, a spokesperson said in an email: “We won’t go into specifics at this time as this is a investigation in progress. “

The education ministry’s office of the inspector general is investigating financial aid fraud, ministry spokeswoman Catherine Grant said in an email.

She said the agency had seen an increase in student financial aid fraud referrals since the pandemic, but was unable to provide additional information “to protect and maintain integrity of any work in progress “.

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

He’s seen a growth in applications among student populations that he wouldn’t normally expect: older students, low-income students, first-time students. Could it be that vulnerable students, battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, are starting to pour into the community college system? Enrollment had declined 12% in the community college system from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the latest data available.

Mr. Perry began speaking with officials in the community college system and quickly noticed discussions online about suspicious requests. Sure enough, analysis of the data revealed “around 60,000 requests with repetitive addresses, no phone numbers and looking very suspicious and different from what a financial aid case would look like,” he said Wednesday.

Fraud of this nature is easier to commit at community colleges than at four-year institutions, according to Perry, because two-year institutions do not have admissions committees to vet applicants. And while colleges have had fully virtual components for many years, the pandemic – which has forced many colleges to operate entirely online – has created the conditions for such programs to flourish. “Someone trying to perpetuate this would think this was the most likely time to try to get out of 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 recently raised concerns about application fraud, according to a Chancellor’s note Monday. In July, the system began using bot detection software on an application portal. Early indications suggest that around 20% of portal traffic “is malicious and related to bots,” officials reported.

Starting in September, the memo says, accounts that use the portal and are associated with fraudulent activity will be suspended so that they cannot submit multiple applications. The college will also institute multiple levels of verification during enrollment so that students need an email address or phone number before they can complete an application.

“This improvement should not present any significant obstacles for most real students,” the memo reads.

Also beginning this month, the chancellor’s office requires colleges and districts to submit monthly reports that include the number of suspected enrollment or financial aid fraud incidents as well as the amount of financial aid. that a college had to return due to fraud.

In Mr. Perry’s opinion, the system was working exactly as expected: his office, college administrators, financial aid directors, and faculty all raised concerns about activities that did not appear to be correct, which ultimately led to the discovery of the scheme.

But Ms Brogger, who felt her concerns had not been addressed as quickly as they should have been, said she was still frustrated that her college and the state had failed to bring together the pieces earlier, calling this an example of how colleges are “siled”.

“One hand doesn’t talk to the other,” she said. “Going forward, we really need to think critically about our systems, our IT and cybersecurity, certainly as online education continues to gain in relevance.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: More than 60,000 bogus student aid applications submitted, according to California
More than 60,000 bogus student aid applications submitted, according to California
Newsrust - US Top News
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