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Admissions Police Bolster Efforts To Uncover Fraud

By Jon Weinbach

Apr 6, 2007 (WALL STREET JOURNAL) -- Before mailing out acceptance and rejection letters over the past week, thousands of colleges and graduate schools conducted their usual reviews of test scores, transcripts, and essays. But less publicly, admissions officers focused on something else: police databases, plagiarism checks, and reports by private-investigators.

There’s a new age of vigilance in academia. Spooked by incidents including guidance-counselor fraud in Los Angeles, blatant plagiarism at MIT and campus crime in North Carolina, colleges and graduate schools are shoring up their admissions process. In an era when applicants seek an edge with $500-an-hour “admissions consultants” and online essay-editing services, schools are using their own new methods to vet prospective students. Much like corporations that have been burned by CEO scandals, universities are tapping into the burgeoning background-check industry to verify what’s written–or not–on applications.

The University of California system, which enrolls more than 30,000 college freshmen each year, now conducts random spot checks, asking about 10 percent of applicants to verify activities, grades, or facts from personal essays. Last year, five Division I athletic programs began using a law firm to conduct background checks on high-school recruits. And this school year, Harvard’s undergraduate admissions staff added a former professional background checker. “We look at essays with a certain degree of skepticism,” says Harvard College director of admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis. “We’re not shy about checking further.”

An honor code

No organization tracks admissions transgression, and university officials say most applicants are honest. But finding the exceptions has become harder as the number of college applications has grown. The Education Department projects 3.2 million Americans will graduate from high school this spring, up from 2.6 million a decade earlier. Record numbers of applications were reported this year, from the Ivy League (including Harvard and Dartmouth) to the Big 10 (Northwestern) and Pac-10 (Stanford). “You can’t verify whether they put two or three years into the chess club,” says Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admissions. “To a great extent, it’s an honor code.”

But threats to that code often start in high school. According to a 2006 survey of 36,000 high-schoolers by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, 60 percent of students admit to cheating on tests, and more than 30 percent say that within the last year, they’ve copied a document from the Internet. Students are “far more brazen” today, says Michael Josephson, a former law professor who founded the institute 20 years ago. Schools at all levels, he believes, have become soft on cheating: He cites a desire to give students a second chance, a reluctance to commit resources to cracking down, and the fear of crossing parents who direct anger at schools, rather than at kids, when improprieties are brought to light. “What you allow, you encourage,” he says.

Last year at Campbell Hall, a 63-year-old Episcopal school in North Hollywood, California, longtime college counselor Vince Garcia was fired for putting false information on student recommendations. Mr. Garcia, who was well regarded by colleagues at other private schools, cited awards students hadn’t won and quoted teacher comments that were false or copied from other recommendations, says the Rev. Julian Bull, Campbell Hall’s headmaster.

The school subsequently rewrote recommendations for 55 students and notified colleges that had received the forms. None of the admissions decisions were changed. Mr. Garcia declined to comment on the episode or Campbell Hall’s actions but says he remains “committed to working with students to find the best path–for them–into higher education.” Mr. Garcia is now an admissions officer at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks; Matthew Ward, the school’s dean of undergraduate enrollment, says the school is confident Mr. Garcia has “the appropriate level of accountability to be an asset to the team.”

‘We’ve seen it all’

Business schools have taken the lead in cracking down. After a couple of cases of B-school admissions fraud, corporate security firm Kroll started a Global Academic Verifications division in 2003. Kroll now does checks on accepted students for about 20 business schools, including Wharton and Columbia. “Fake degrees, grade inflation, employment titles, or dates that aren’t true–we’ve seen it all,” says Kroll’s Brian Lapidus, who oversees the division. Medical schools have also raised their guard. Last June, the Association of American Medical Colleges asked all of its members to include criminal background checks in their admissions processes.

Admissions officers say they have ways to identify heavy-handed parental editing, embellishments, and outright lies. Tainted applications can be easy to spot because they lack “internal validity”–a polished essay may raise eyebrows, for example, coming from a student with mediocre English grades. A simple Internet search can be used to spot-check athletic activities or scholastic honors. The latest innovation: downloadable SAT writing samples. Since the standardized test added a written component two years ago, colleges have been able to compare students’ writing proficiency on their SAT essays–more or less guaranteed to be their own work–with the prose that accompanies their applications.

The pressure to create a memorable application is growing as admissions brochures trumpet the importance of factors such as leadership, writing ability, and out-of-school activities. As a result, colleges have helped fan the perception that exotic pursuits and flawless essays are more important than ever. Lloyd Petersen, a former director of admissions at Yale and Vassar, says the crush of applications “forces people to do things that they wouldn’t normally do.”

Modeling experience

Filling out applications, Charlie Covey mentioned his nascent modeling career. The high school senior in Roswell, Georgia, says he signed with a modeling agency in Atlanta last fall, though he hasn’t yet booked a job. On the advice of a private college counselor, he added the agency to the applications’ “work experience” section. “I’ve done headshots,” says the 18-year-old, who has been accepted to the University of Georgia, University of Southern California, and New York University. “I felt kind of bad because I didn’t have tons of stuff like a lot of my friends.”

Last year, Sonia Minden’s heart fluttered when she received a solemn letter from the University of California undergraduate admissions staff. The note asked her to verify the experience she wrote about in her application essay–an archaeological dig in Switzerland led by a Stanford professor. Ms. Minden, who had a 3.8 GPA and edited the literary magazine at Capuchino High School in San Bruno, California, says she thought the letter was tantamount to a rejection. It also raised suspicions among her friends. “They were like, ‘did you lie?’” she says.

Ms. Minden, it turns out, was among some 7,000 applicants the UC schools randomly picked for its authentication program. The students are instructed to submit material to confirm details in one of seven application categories, such as volunteer history and personal statements. Though the program started in 2003, there’s barely a mention of it on the UC application. (One sentence in the instructions notes that students may receive a “request for further information.”) Susan Wilbur, the UC director of undergraduate admissions, says the point is to “send a message that we’re committed to the highest degree of integrity.”

Ms. Minden says the certification process was disconcerting mostly because she didn’t see it coming. “It was kind of a stressful time,” she says. The professor who led the dig wrote a letter on Ms. Minden’s behalf, and now she is a freshman at her first-choice school, UC-San Diego.

Some transgressions are clear. A few years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked applicants to come up with their own essay question. Two picked an identical topic: “What if Superman had sex with Lois Lane?” Both students excerpted material from “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” an essay by author Larry Niven. Both were rejected. Marilee Jones, MIT’s dean of admissions, calls the episode “hilarious,” but worries that colleges have helped ratchet up the pressure of applications. In an effort to discourage puffery, she reduced the number of lines MIT’s form gave students to list extracurricular activities. “Kids felt like they needed to fill up all of them,” she says.

For all the steps colleges are taking to safeguard admissions, they’re also eager to boost applications–which in turn increases their “selectivity” rate, an important factor in school rankings. Some colleges fear that aggressive screening could scare off potential students, says John Barrie, chief executive of Turnitin.com, a Web site that high schools and colleges use to check papers for plagiarism.

The nine-year-old site, which screens more than 100,000 student papers a day, added an admissions-essay service in 2004. Over the last three years, Mr. Barrie says, the site has screened more than 27,000 admissions essays, and found 11 percent included at least one-quarter unoriginal material. Mr. Barrie says about two dozen schools now use the site to check admissions essays; none of the institutions would agree to be identified.

Universities are only the latest institutions to scrutinize candidates. The background-check industry has mushroomed since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as criminal and resume checks have been added to the hiring process of the likes of Starbucks (it plans to check aspiring baristas) and Wal-Mart Stores. The National Association of Professional Background Screeners, founded four years ago, now counts more than 400 members; in the early ’90s, there were only about 30 players in the business, says the trade group’s cochair, Robert Capwell.

The growing number of Web sites devoted to the admissions industry has made it easier for students to plagiarize material and trade in misleading gossip. Ivyessays.com, a professional essay-editing service, also lets students buy packages of sample essays grouped by theme, question, or school. The $12 “Harvard” package includes 10 essays and five short-answer samples tailored to the school’s application. (Ivyessay.com’s writing is meant to be used as a sample, says editor in chief Adrienne Dowhan.) On chat boards like collegeconfidential.com, topics range from “How to impress admissions committees with your extracurriculars” to “Should I tell them that I’m Jewish?”

Telltale cell number

Bari Norman, an independent college counselor based in New York and Miami, says she occasionally sees parents tacitly encourage their children to stretch the truth on applications. The most troubling cases, she says, involve students who feel they’re at a disadvantage because they’re not lying. Last year, a white client in Miami was distraught because her friends were falsely identifying themselves as Hispanic. “She asked me, with a straight face, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ ” says Ms. Norman, a former admissions officer at Barnard College.

Admissions officials at the Haas School of Business at UC-Berkeley saw the desperation firsthand. In 2003, admissions director Jeff Pihakis tried to call an applicant to tell her she had gained admission. After several failed attempts, he reached a woman who gave him a cellphone number for the applicant. Looking again at the file, he saw the number he’d just been given matched the number the applicant had listed for a purported boss. That led Mr. Pihakis to uncover other fabrications, including false job titles and fake stationery for the sham company. The admissions staff ultimately investigated all 100 of the students it had admitted, uncovering four more applicants who had misrepresented themselves.

The next summer, Kroll approached the school about providing background checks. Since then, all accepted students have had to pass an “employment and background verification”–and pay a $65 fee–before enrolling. In the past four years, only one has been rejected. “We were hoping it would be a deterrent,” says Mr. Pihakis. “And it has been.”

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