As more Chinese students seek higher-education opportunities in the United States, universities must deal with a "tide of fraud" in undergraduate applications from China, said an education consultant and author of a new report on the topic.
Many Chinese college applicants are forging fake recommendation letters, personal essays, or otherwise gaming the admissions process, said Tom Melcher, chairman of Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American colleges and universities about mainland China.
"The findings from the report are straightforward, but pretty sobering; cheating is really pervasive in China," said Mr. Melcher.
To understand the depth of the problem, Zinch informally surveyed about 250 Chinese high-school students, and also spoke with some parents and college-recruiting agents.
Based on those interviews, Zinch estimates that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations; 70 percent have other people write their personal essays; 50 percent forge their high-school transcripts; 30 percent lie on financial-aid forms; and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive.
Mr. Melcher said fraudulent activities will increase in the future as more Chinese students come to the United States.
According to the Institute of International Education, the number of students from China studying at the undergraduate level surged during the 2008-9 academic year, rising 60 percent.
With this growth, other education observers have raised concerns about fraudulent applications and other issues. And there are reports of fraud being uncovered.
In 2008, Newcastle University, in England, reportedly kicked out 49 Chinese students and a Taiwanese student for falsifying their application documents.
In that case, bogus agents were blamed for the fraud.
But Mr. Melcher said that overly aggressive agents are not the primary problem. "The fundamental thing that's driving this is not the unscrupulous agent. It's the parents who are pushing the agents to cut corners," he said.
The Zinch report says Chinese mothers and fathers get involved in the application process in ways their Western counterparts would never consider. "Chinese parents make American helicopter parents look laid back," it says.
The current generation of parents grew up as China's economy exploded, and they watched while many people became wealthy by "bending or breaking the rules, almost with impunity," the report says. Given this experience, they do not consider lying on a college application an ethical breach, especially when it means giving their children a shot at a better future.
Of course, agents do play a big role in the widespread fraud. They earn monetary bonuses, sometimes as much as $10,000, based on whether their clients' children are accepted at top-ranked institutions, so they are often all too willing to cheat by, say, ghostwriting personal essays.
"Many agents in China have folders of 'successful' essays, which they tweak each year," the Zinch report says.
High-school administrators also can contribute to the problem. In some cases, they are eager to have students get into prestigious universities and do not have a problem with altering transcripts.
"These adjustments aren't seen as being dishonest—they are seen as an attempt to make the school's students (and therefore the school) look good," Zinch says.
Mr. Melcher said American universities can take several steps to mitigate fraudulent activities. His main suggestion is that institutions hire a "covert" admissions officer from mainland China. This person can screen applications for potential inconsistencies that may indicate fraud. He recommends that this employee not be listed on an institution's Web site or announced in other public ways so as to avoid tipping off applicants.
Also, he said, universities should consider interviewing every Chinese applicant of possible merit and conducting such interviews in the native language.
The cost of such additional screening should not be onerous, Mr. Melcher said; interviews, for example, can be conducted fairly cheaply using the Internet these days.
What's more, he said, colleges and universities need to consider what it means if they do nothing and potentially accept a dishonest student or provide financial assistance to a person who doesn't deserve it. There is a "set of values" that higher-education institutions would like their students to have, and therefore doing a better job vetting foreign applicants "speaks to the core of the educational mission."
The Zinch report is part of a series of white papers that are published monthly by the company. They are available to colleges and universities that pay for its China Market Intelligence service.