Buying Access to Admissions Officers?

A Reuters investigation details how a Chinese company accused by multiple ex-employees of application fraud "bought access" to U.S. admissions officers.

October 17, 2016

“How a Chinese Company Bought Access to Admissions Officers at Top U.S. Colleges.”

That's the headline of an investigative article published by Reuters on Friday. The article focuses on the Shanghai-based Dipont Education Management Group and its alleged “special relationship” with about 20 well-known American colleges, including Carleton, Pomona and Wellesley Colleges; Colgate, Tulane and Vanderbilt Universities; and the Universities of California, Berkeley; Vermont; and Virginia. Multiple former Dipont employees have accused the company of engaging in application fraud, charges the CEO denies.

According to the Reuters article, Dipont and an affiliated charity paid for airfare and honoraria for admissions officers from top U.S. universities to participate in the company’s eight-day summer workshop on applying to U.S. colleges, which is held in Shanghai and attended by hundreds of paying Chinese students. For the past three summers, admissions officers at participating U.S. colleges and universities were given a choice of either business-class airfare or economy-class travel plus an honorarium -- worth $4,500 the past two summers, and in some cases paid in cash, in $100 bills.

A full list of colleges that have participated, and whether they confirmed accepting business-class airfare or an honorarium, is included in the Reuters article. A spokesman for one of the institutions, the University of Virginia, confirmed to a local paper, The Daily Progress, that Dipont had paid for a university employee's airfare -- permitted under university policy, the spokesman said -- but denied suggestions of a "special relationship."

Dipont boasts of its relationships with U.S. colleges in its marketing materials, the Reuters reporters found. The article cites an advertisement for the 2015 summer program that says, “Just once a year, current admissions officers become your exclusive consultants.” The ad also quotes a current Wellesley student giving the summer program credit for her early acceptance to the liberal arts college.

In addition to describing the cash or “perks” Dipont offered to American admissions officers who came to participate in its summer workshops, the Reuters article details accusations of application fraud made by ex-employees of the company. Six former Dipont employees told Reuters they wrote application essays for students, while another said she altered recommendation letters written by teachers. A former employee said that a student was given access to a high school transcript to erase bad grades.

A 2014 email quoted by Reuters and sent by Bruce Hammond, a former director of college counseling at Dipont, to officials at 11 U.S. colleges or universities describes the company as “one of the primary architects of the system of fraud and misinformation that pervades the application process to U.S. institutions.”

The company’s CEO is quoted in the article denying the allegations of fraud. “One or two aberrant employees who violate the rules do not indicate companywide fraud,” Benson Zhang, Dipont’s CEO, said.

Zhang told Reuters that “many of the schools, students and overseas colleges consider us one of the most ethical companies in China.”

Zhang has donated $750,000 to a University of Southern California research center for an initiative to fight fraud in Chinese admissions to U.S. colleges. Jerome Lucido, the director of that center, is quoted in the Reuters article saying the gift “was carefully vetted through USC and found to be fully appropriate.” An email trail examined by Reuters suggests that Lucido responded to the 2014 email sent by Hammond, the former Dipont employee, seeking more details on allegations of cheating, and that Hammond responded but did not provide specifics. Lucido described Dipont as “a reliable and valuable partner” and wrote in an email to Reuters, “My thinking is that you have statements from people that do not constitute actual evidence.”

The Reuters article notes that the donation to USC, made through a New York-based nonprofit organization, is also controversial because the nonprofit has not disclosed ties to Dipont in tax filings.

Asked by Inside Higher Ed whether he views it as appropriate to accept money from Zhang to study fraud in admissions in light of what Reuters reported, and whether he plans to return funds that have already been donated to USC, Lucido wrote, "As you know, the Reuters article is very fresh.  At this point, we do not know the veracity of the allegations made within it, but my colleagues and I are taking them seriously. We will take as much time as we need to do our due diligence on the matter."

In an official statement posted on its website, Dipont said it would "refute at a later time the so-called facts and allegations in the Reuters article line by line" and that it "retains the right to take legal actions."

More broadly the statement from Dipont takes issue with the article's premise and alleges that it contains unspecified misrepresentations. "Following a problematic line of reasoning, this article draws heavily from observations from eight former Dipont employees, quotes interviews with Dipont’s senior executives out of context and not without misrepresentations, while ignoring dozens of US college admissions officers who have said the contrary. By misrepresenting legitimate educational exchange between U.S. and China as illegitimate transactions between Dipont and U.S. college admissions officers, this article attempts to undermine China’s public education system and well-known U.S. colleges with this unfounded charge of 'corruption' and discredit China’s K-12 education, and at the same time, seek publicity by producing a piece of sensational yet untruthful news."

Even as Dipont was disputing the article, it was circulating and being discussed with concern among many admissions officers in the United States. Admissions professionals interviewed by Inside Higher Ed said that the Reuters article raises issues around perceived or actual conflicts of interest that are not currently addressed by an ethics code for the field. Beyond that, some suggested it raises questions about whether admissions professionals are being naïve -- perhaps willfully so -- when it comes to their activities in China.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling's Statement of Principles of Good Practice does not include any language speaking specifically to issues of travel-related payments or honoraria in either domestic or international student recruiting. The association's members have extensively debated ethical issues related to international student recruitment in recent years, with much of that debate centering on the association's controversial decision in 2013 to lift its prohibition on universities using agents paid per capita commissions in international recruitment.

The NACAC statement, a code of ethics for the field, calls on admissions professionals to "not offer or accept any reward or remuneration from a secondary school, college, university, agency or organization for placement or recruitment of students in the United States" and to "not employ agents who are compensated on a per capita basis when recruiting students outside the United States, unless ensuring they and their agents conduct themselves with accountability, transparency and integrity" (emphasis added). It does not include language that would speak to other types of payments or reimbursement. The term "conflict of interest" does not appear.

“Clearly this is an area we hadn’t thought about, but I think it’s an area that we are now going to think about,” said Lou Hirsh, the chair of NACAC’s admission practices committee and a retired admissions director at the University of Delaware. “We do need to start thinking through how you lay out ethical guidelines that cover situations such as those described in that [Reuters] article. We’ve thought about compensation only as per capita, but clearly any compensation that creates an appearance of a conflict of interest is what you want to ban.”

Hirsh said the Reuters article raises a number of concerning issues -- assuming, he offered as a general caveat, that the facts are as reported.

“There’s nothing unethical about receiving reimbursement for travel to be flown to participate in a panel,” Hirsh said. “That happens even domestically …. If a secondary school wants you to do something like participate in a mock admission committee exercise, they can certainly agree to cover your travel for it; that’s not unreasonable. But what would be unethical is if you then use your participation to give the impression to families that you have a specific relationship with whoever’s sponsoring this travel and that can be used to ensure a student gains admission. If the facts are as reported, you’ve got Dipont implying that a student got into college precisely because of their specific relationship. That’s clearly an ethical problem and raises a lot of concern.”

“There’s also the question of are they in fact fighting fraud or participating in fraud?” said Hirsh. “If in fact they’re knowingly employing people who are fraudulently doctoring transcripts and writing up essays for students and all that’s been cited in the article, then you have to ask yourself should any institution be involved in that. The answer clearly would be no, you shouldn’t.”

“And of course when you start reading things like being paid $100 bills, it certainly gives the strong appearance that something’s happening that isn’t ethical,” Hirsh added. “That seems to be a huge red flag …. If I were on a panel like this and someone were suddenly offering me cash currency as a reimbursement for something, I would find that very suspect. I would decline to accept anything like that.”

Many in the international admissions world have raised concerns about the reported prevalence of fraud in applications from China. Earlier Reuters articles have focused on problems of cheating on the SAT and ACT in China, and admissions officials routinely discuss problems of faked transcripts, personal essays and letters of recommendation.

Hans de Wit, the director of the Center for International Education at Boston College, described the conduct depicted in the Reuters article as “somewhere between being naïve and doing unethical things. I think the people who are doing this have lost sight that they have crossed a line, that by being under pressure to recruit with their own limited funding, they do things that are not acceptable anymore.”

De Wit, who blogs for Inside Higher Ed, has written about issues of fraud and the growing commercialization and outsourcing of international student recruiting. “There’s so much money in this industry these days, and there’s so much at stake -- the competition for talent and so on -- that we have to say, well, there are certain things we have to be very careful about,” de Wit said. For example, de Wit said, he would be “very careful” of accepting business-class airfare from a company to travel to a country for a recruiting-related purpose.

“Of course it depends very much what is the purpose: if they ask you to advise them on how Chinese universities do admission, that's something else, but if it has explicitly to do with admission of Chinese students to U.S. universities and to your own institution, then I think you should not do that,” said de Wit, who stressed the importance of institutions remaining independent when it comes to the admissions process.

Parke Muth, a former director of international admission at the University of Virginia until 2011 and an admissions consultant, said that there needs to be a kind of training manual for admissions officers working in China. “You have orientation for students coming to the U.S. I think we should have orientation for admission people going to China,” Muth said.

Muth described a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude on the part of some U.S. admissions officials -- who, he suggested, simply don't want to know the extent of the problem of application fraud in China.

“There are people who know some of the things that are going on in some of these companies and they try to educate people about it, but there hasn’t been a lot of effort on the part of some schools to take proactive steps to make sure that the students aren’t being taken advantage of and that the admissions people understand that their position is potentially compromised,” Muth said.

Some independent college counselors expressed dismay at the Reuters article. “So now we know -- college admissions is no longer a profession; it is a business,” Cigus Vanni, an independent college counselor in the Philadelphia area, said.

“Aren't we the ones who should be educating against such greed and captivity?” Vanni asked.

“It's bad enough that AOs [admissions officers] have allowed themselves to be played or, worse, are on the take,” said David Scott Lewis, a member of the International Association for College Admission Counseling and head instructor for Beyond English, an enrichment program for high school students in China. “Far more serious, however, is pervasive fraud -- fraud that is much worse than is generally perceived by AOs in the States.”


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