IOWA CITY, Iowa (Reuters) - The advertisements were tailored for Chinese college students far from home, struggling with the English language and an unfamiliar culture.
Coaching services peppered the students with emails and chat messages in Chinese, offering to help foreign students at U.S. colleges do much of the work necessary for a university degree. The companies would author essays for clients. Handle their homework. Even take their exams. All for about a $1,000 a course.
For dozens of Chinese nationals at the University of Iowa, the offers proved irresistible.
“Test-taking services. Paper-writing. Take Online Courses for you,” says the social-messaging profile of one Chinese coaching outfit used by Iowa students, UI International Student Services. A pitch emailed from another business ended with this reassuring claim: “Your friends are all using us.”
Today, the University of Iowa, one of the largest state universities in the American Midwest, says it is investigating at least 30 students suspected of cheating. Three sources familiar with the inquiry say the number under investigation may be two or three times higher.
University spokespeople declined to name the students or comment on their nationality, citing academic privacy laws.
But those familiar with the investigation said that most, perhaps all, of the cheating suspects are Chinese nationals. They stand accused of cheating in online versions of at least three courses, including law and economics. Three of the Chinese suspects admitted to Reuters that they hired Chinese-run outfits to take exams for them.
A May 8 letter sent by the university to a fourth Chinese student, who allegedly had imposters take his midterms for him, says the school will recommend expulsion. “We are unable to be sure that you will not cheat in the future, since your past actions call your future behavior into question,” it reads. Foreigners in the United States on student visas face possible deportation under U.S. immigration law if expelled from school.
The Iowa cheating rings are the latest evidence of how a vibrant East Asian industry is corrupting the U.S. higher education system by gaming entrance exams, concocting college applications and completing college coursework on behalf of students. These nimble operators not only help students cheat their way into universities. They also help them cheat their way through.
The companies are prospering by exploiting two intersecting interests: the growing demand by Chinese nationals to study overseas, and the desire by U.S. colleges to profit from foreign students willing to pay full tuition.
As Reuters reported in March, some companies are leveraging weaknesses in the SAT, a standardized college entrance exam, to help clients gain an unfair advantage on the test by feeding them questions in advance.
In addition, Reuters has identified companies in China that help students contrive their entire college application – embellishing or ghostwriting application essays, doctoring letters of recommendation from high school teachers, and even advising kids to obtain fake high school transcripts. Other providers continue the illicit assistance after admission, such as those that performed coursework for hire in Iowa City.
“The reality is for international students, particularly in Asia, there’s a worry about whether the application is authentic, whether the essay is authentic, whether the person who shows up at your door is the same person who applied,” said Joyce E. Smith, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Virginia.
The cheating services extend far beyond Iowa. At the University of Washington, the University of Alabama and Penn State University, for example, students received Chinese-language advertisements by email this semester from unnamed firms. The pitch: Students could raise their grade point averages and graduate early if they hired the outfits to take classes and do assignments for them. The ads, reviewed by Reuters, offered a money-back guarantee. Students who didn’t get As would get refunds.
The market for such services has major potential. About 761,000 degree-seeking foreign students now study in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education. A third come from China. Department of Commerce statistics show that Chinese students spent almost $10 billion on tuition and other goods and services in America in 2014.
Of course, not all Chinese students are dishonest, and American students aren’t immune to the lure of cheating. Still, the temptation to break the rules is great in China because the stakes are extraordinarily high.
Most seats at universities in China are awarded through a competitive national entrance exam known as the gaokao, a test that requires years of round-the-clock preparation.
A growing number of Chinese parents are reluctant to put their children through that gauntlet. U.S. universities offer an easier way to get ahead, with a quality education and better job prospects.
To help those students succeed, a multi-faceted industry is taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the U.S. higher education system. For colleges, vetting the applicants who use these services can be daunting. The case of Xuan “Claren” Rong shows why.
A native of Shenzhen, a city of about 11 million people on the Chinese mainland near Hong Kong, Rong spent part of high school in America. He entered the MacDuffie School, a boarding and day school in Granby, Massachusetts, as a ninth-grader in September 2011.
“He seemed to be a diligent, hard-working kid,” said Steven Griffin, MacDuffie’s head of school. Trouble was, “he was in the middle of the pack in terms of his grades,” Griffin recalled. “Apparently that was not good enough for his family.”
Reuters reviewed Rong’s transcript at MacDuffie, which the school verified as authentic. It shows his overall grade point average as of April 2014 was 2.8 out of 4 – about a B – though it was marred with Ds in Latin and Physics. Rong was supposed to graduate in 2015 but dropped out after his junior year.
In March 2014, he became a client of Cunshande, a company that helps Chinese students get accepted to top U.S. colleges. Cunshande, also known as Transcend Education, is located on the 25th floor of an office tower in the financial district of Shenzhen.
Its founders – Kevin Li and Michael Du – both attended one of America’s top public schools, the University of California, Los Angeles. Li said they began advising Chinese students on applying to American colleges while at UCLA. Du wouldn’t comment other than to say in an email that he is “no longer involved with the operations at Transcend.”
Li and Du opened Transcend in Shenzhen about five years ago. Li said Transcend has about 40 clients a year and charges between $12,000 and $18,000 for its services, which he described as mentoring and counseling students.
A receipt shows that Claren Rong’s parents paid about $13,700 to Transcend. With the company’s help, Rong applied to at least 15 U.S. colleges, emails reviewed by Reuters indicate. He was accepted in 2015 by the University of California, Davis.
In March 2015, more than a hundred U.S. colleges began receiving emails from an anonymous former Transcend employee. The emails included details about 40 Chinese applicants, including Rong.
“I am writing this e-mail to inform you that the student Xuan Rong … under the influence of Cunshande, a company which ghostwrites applications for Chinese students applying to American universities, committed application fraud,” the tipster wrote to some of the schools.
Rong, the tipster alleged, claimed in his college applications that he attended a Chinese high school in downtown Shenzhen, where he maintained an A average his sophomore and junior years. In fact, the tipster said, Rong was attending MacDuffie in Massachusetts.
The tipster attached two transcripts for Rong – his real one from MacDuffie, the other from the school in Shenzhen. Both transcripts list grades for his sophomore and junior years, even though Rong didn’t take classes at the Shenzhen school those years.
Admissions offices often lack the staff to pursue such red flags. At UC Davis, where Rong was admitted, 68,519 people applied to attend the school this fall. One of every five were international students. The school has just seven admissions officers on staff to vet those 13,560 international applicants.
Even so, an admissions officer at UC Davis, Mitsuko Leonard, did email the former Transcend employee, promising that “any real evidence you are able to provide will be considered.”
The tipster responded five days later, on March 30, 2015, offering information about 21 students in 217 attached documents. Leonard forwarded the material to the UC president’s office. “Yikes… this is from the anonymous source in China. Please review,” she wrote.
Most of the attachments were different versions of college essays that, the tipster claimed, had been doctored by Transcend employees. They included nine versions of an essay by Rong. The evolving drafts, reviewed by Reuters, display dramatic improvement in grammar and writing. The email also included a “Special Note” about where Rong attended high school.
The tipster alleged that Rong’s parents had obtained “a fake Chinese high school transcript” from a local Chinese high school to “hide his poor” average at MacDuffie. The attachments included his legitimate transcript from the Massachusetts school.
UC Davis didn’t contact the school at that time, and it admitted Rong.
Griffin, MacDuffie’s school head, said a UC Davis representative called months later, in late September, asking about Rong. The call came shortly after Reuters obtained, through a public records request, the correspondence between the admissions office and the Transcend tipster.
A UC Davis spokesman initially told Reuters the university couldn’t comment on specific students. He later said Rong would be leaving the university after the fall semester in December 2015.
Rong declined to comment. His father, Yuanxin Rong, confirmed in an interview in Shenzhen last November that UC Davis had expelled his son. “The university said that we didn’t provide the right information” in his application, he said.
Rong’s father also confirmed that his son submitted a bogus Chinese high school transcript. He said Transcend had advised his family to obtain a transcript from the Chinese high school because of his son’s low grade point average at MacDuffie.
Ketty Kang, director of the international department at Cuiyuan High School in Shenzhen, confirmed that the school issued a transcript for Rong showing he spent his sophomore and junior years there. “I should have added more information to say he wasn’t actually at the school for several years,” she said.
Li, the co-founder of Transcend, initially said he had no knowledge of the Chinese transcript for Rong. Reuters obtained a copy of the transcript, which was a Microsoft Word file. Its metadata – computer information about the document – showed that it had last been saved by Li. Shown a copy of the document and the metadata, Li conceded that Transcend had the fake transcript on file and that he had seen it before. But he said Transcend played no part in obtaining the document.
Li told Reuters the company does not ghostwrite applications. He also said Transcend doesn’t help students create teacher recommendations for themselves. Drafts seen by Reuters of more than 200 recommendation letters written for more than 50 Transcend students suggest otherwise.
The metadata on those documents indicates that they, too, had been stored on Transcend’s computers. Letters of recommendation are customarily confidential, and teachers rarely let anyone change them. The letters disclosed by the tipster bear signs of having been scripted or altered by students or Transcend employees.
Two of the recommendations are for Rong. Both claim he attended Cuiyuan High. One referred to his “outstanding academic performance.” In another, a teacher claimed he had taught Rong math in 11th grade and that he was “a great student.”
In a purported teacher’s recommendation for another student, Li commented in the margins, “This part needs to be expanded.” He added that two other paragraphs could be “combined into one and shortened so we have enough space for this expanded paragraph.”
Shown a copy of that letter, Li said Transcend never changes recommendations. Transcend’s input on that particular letter, he said, was “definitely authorized by the school teacher.”
The teacher says otherwise. Phillip Stout, then a teacher at Shenzhen Middle School, said he did write a letter for the student, whose name Reuters is withholding. But Stout said he never gave a copy of the letter to the student or authorized anyone to change it. He also said he never heard of Li or his company. How Transcend got the letter is a mystery to Stout.
“If somebody else is editing it, it’s not something I ever wanted,” he said. “It’s upsetting to hear.”
Rong’s father said the family would now try to find another U.S. school for his son. He expressed no remorse about obtaining the fake Chinese transcript.
“We just wanted to get in a better school,” he said. “It’s normal. Anyone would do that.”
The situation at the University of Iowa illustrates how Chinese cheating-service providers can cause trouble long after admission.
At Iowa, four or five so-called transcript evaluators review international applications from potential freshmen, according to a school spokesman. For the fall 2016 term, nearly 5,000 international students applied, leaving each of the admissions officers to scrutinize on average about a thousand applications.
In 2015, 4,540 international students were enrolled at Iowa. Of those, 2,797 were from China. That’s 9 percent of the school’s student body. Most or all of the students accused of cheating are Chinese nationals.
An email sent on April 25 to faculty members of Iowa’s business school explained how the suspects were caught. The students, wrote Kenneth G. Brown, associate dean at the university’s Tippie College of Business, had taken online examinations monitored by a proctoring services company, ProctorU.
The contractor discovered that students taking online classes had other people take their exams for them, he wrote. ProctorU is able to monitor students through the cameras mounted in the computers used to take the test. In checking the faces of the exam-takers against the identification photos of the legitimate students, ProctorU came to believe that imposters had stepped in for the students. It then alerted the university.
“Some of these students conducted this type of cheating in more than one class,” Brown wrote. He said that some of the ringers cheated for more than one student. Brown declined to comment. ProctorU confirmed the outlines of how it detected the cheating.
It isn’t clear if the university has identified any of the ringers, known as “gunmen” in China. But the three Chinese students interviewed for this article mentioned several services they had used. The students spoke on the condition that they not be named.
One, a third-year transfer student from a Chinese university, said UI International Student Services took a midterm exam for her in March. In a series of Chinese-language messages via the WeChat app, UI International confirmed to Reuters that it has provided “substitute” course-taking services to students at the University of Iowa. But contradicting the student, UI International denied taking exams for students and said none of its clients had been accused of academic fraud.
UI International told Reuters that it also provides services at a handful of other American colleges, which it declined to name. Its students-for-hire are all undergraduates, UI International said, but not all are Chinese.
“We’re students, too, making a little hard-earned money,” UI International said in the WeChat exchange. “I hope you can have mercy on us in your writing. Don’t wipe us out. Thanks a million.”
Another student caught in the cheating crackdown, a sophomore, said she hired a company that goes by the names Fanyi Translation and Fanyi Creation Translation. Fanyi’s website, fanyishop.com, became inaccessible May 23. It had carried the motto “diligently creating value.”
Its specialties include writing papers for students. “We have native English speakers from the UK and the US who can guarantee the quality of the writing,” the site said. Fanyi charged 5 cents a word for “polishing” an existing piece of writing and 21 cents a word for “gold medal expert service” – editors writing bespoke pieces for the student. Fanyi also said it would create documents for students going abroad, including personal statements and recommendation letters.
Fanyi accepted payment in U.S. and Canadian dollars, British pounds and Chinese renminbi, by Visa, MasterCard and UnionPay, its website said. Reuters was unable to reach the operators of the company.
The transfer student who said she used UI International is a 21-year-old junior. She has been at Iowa for two semesters. She paid $1,200 to UI International to take the midterm exam for her in the Introduction to Law course, she said.
“At the start, I wasn’t looking for someone to take my exams for me,” she said. “But when I did my homework, I discovered the grades I got for my homework were always very poor. Then I began to worry.”
“My family is very strict with me and has very high expectations for my grades,” she said. Her mother teaches at a university back home in China, she said. “My mother’s health is not good, too, and I didn’t want to disappoint her, which led me to make a wrong decision.”
The sophomore student who hired Fanyi Translation said she paid the service $1,400 to take the midterm exam for her in the same law course. The service, she said, “sweet talked and tricked us. They told us they can get As for us – that they can guarantee Bs and strive for As.”
Fanyi delivered on one promise: She got a B on her midterm. But because she was caught cheating, she failed the course.
“We really regret it now,” she said.
A third student, also a sophomore, said he paid $2,400 via PayPal to someone a friend recommended through WeChat. The service would take two online economics classes for him. The sophomore didn’t even know the ringer’s name. A mediocre student, he thought the service would help his grades. He said he recognizes that what he did is wrong.
When the university told him he’d been caught, he said, “it was a bolt out of the blue. I was really scared.”
Now, the student is looking to put the incident behind him. He says he hopes to stay in the United States – and transfer to another school.
By Koh Gui Qing in Iowa City, Alex Harney in Shanghai, Steve Stecklow in London and James Pomfret in Shenzhen. Additional reporting by Renee Dudley in Boston and Jane Lanhee Lee in Davis, Calif. Edited by Blake Morrison