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Ghosting the System 

College of the Redwoods hit by enrollment scheme to steal financial aid

College of the Redwoods is facing an enrollment problem — scammers who use bots to submit fake applications, taking advantage of the community college system's open-door policy in an attempt to sign up for classes and steal financial aid meant for students in need.

But it's not just about the money. These so-called "ghost students" are also clogging up classes, sometimes keeping real students from accessing courses they need, and forcing admission officials to dedicate an extraordinary amount of time to separate real applications from the spectral ones, which recently began appearing locally at an unprecedented rate.

"Last spring, we had a significant increase in fraudulent applications which culminated in the summer term with roughly 60 percent of our daily applications being deemed fraudulent," CR's Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Tiffany Schmitcke said in an email to the Journal. "We can't speak as to how many actual enrollments those equated to, however we did have a couple of summer classes where we were able to identify 30 percent of the students enrolled were fraudulent. Once we determined they were fraudulent, we dropped them from any classes and closed out the accounts."

CR political science professor Ryan Emenaker said he first noticed something was a bit off at the beginning of this school year.

While he teaches several classes that often fill up because they are general education requirements, one in particular, his more specialized online Political Controversy class, suddenly became very popular.

Overall, Emenaker said, the course tends to do OK enrollment wise. But this year it was filled to the cap of 30 students several weeks before the semester even started, with a waiting list of six, which gave him pause. Then things took a sudden turn.

After admissions and records had completed its weeding out process, he said the class went down to around 18 students when the first day of school rolled around.

"So more than half of the people who were supposedly enrolled were gone in just a couple of days and I've never seen anything like that," Emenaker said. "Normally, we get attrition of a couple of students ... but I've never seen a class that was maxed out like that and then it all of a sudden go away."

That, he said, leaves him wondering how many actual students were trying to sign up but couldn't, or faced similar barriers in other classes they needed due to the scammers. Conversely, the situation also leaves CR vulnerable to running too many sections with too few students, either by opening up additional sections only to find the need never existed or by not having the right information in time to cancel or combine online courses to better fit demand.

"At a certain point, if you don't have a critical mass of students, the class doesn't go as well," Emenaker said, explaining that some courses depend on robust student participation, whether in person or online discussion boards. "There's a certain point where there is too much attrition to make this function well."

While there's always a certain number of students who drop out of a class for any number of reasons, Emenaker said what he saw this semester was "staggering."

"I've never seen drops like this, so it feels like something has definitely changed," he said.

College of the Redwoods is not alone. For the last several years, "ghost students" have been haunting the California Community College system, which saw a significant uptick in fraudulent applications during the pandemic shift to online classes.

According to a recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle, an estimated 20 percent of enrollment attempts statewide since July of 2022 were believed to be scams — or more than 460,000 of the 2.3 million submissions made via the 116-campus system's online application process.

The problem is acute enough that the California Legislature allocated $100 million last year — $25 million in ongoing assistance and $75 million one-time funding — for cybersecurity staffing and system upgrades to combat enrollment scams and the hacking of information systems.

"We have layered security tools, which we are continually improving, that can detect fraudulent activity at the system-level, though we do not discuss specifics," CCC Chancellor Office spokesperson Melissa Villarin said in an email to the Journal. "Colleges also continue to monitor fraud locally, both on their digital platforms and in their classrooms to make sure the students are real. We have had substantial success at dramatically reducing fraudulent attempts to enroll in our system but continue to remain vigilant to these efforts. We remain engaged in ongoing maintenance and improvement of the information security of our application and the digital platforms throughout our system."

Those improvements have helped, she said, limiting the level of reimbursements that colleges had to make for fraudulently distributed financial aid to $2.5 million last year, which equates to less than one-10th of 1 percent of the $2.6 billion in federal and state aid distributed across the system.

"As an open access system of higher education, community colleges are more likely to be targeted than four-year institutions with eligibility thresholds that make them more difficult targets for bad actors," Villarin said. "This problem is not limited to California and as institutions harden their security profile, perpetrators typically seek out remaining soft targets elsewhere. In discussions with [U.S. Department of Education] Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigators this year, the Chancellor's Office was informed that other similar fraudulent activity occurring around the nation and is a concern of other state entities."

She said the Chancellor's Office is not releasing detailed information because the scam remains under investigation. The Chronicle reported that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General said it was conducting nearly 50 "active investigations" into fraud rings targeting colleges, including in California.

In addition to safeguards that have been "layered into the application process," known as CCCApply, Villarin said, "The Chancellor's Office in December will introduce a new identity verification tool that will significantly reduce the number of fraudulent applications that make it through the central portal, reducing false positives, thereby reducing workload for colleges and protecting students."

Back at CR, Schmitcke said the recent onslaught of fake applications the campus encountered was all-consuming.

"The impact on the admissions staff was significant; doubling the time it would normally take to process the daily applications and also causing them to be on high alert for anything that looked like a 'bot,'" she said, adding that they also ran 20 to 60 applications received each day though the CCCApply system, which "has a spam filter that catches a lot of these before they even get to CR and is constantly upgrading them to help prevent fraud."

"We also implemented a variety of additional measures ourselves to try and minimize fraudulent applications getting through our system," Schmitcke continued. "Thankfully, whatever recent update the CCC Tech Center did in August has vastly decreased the number of fraudulent applications we are currently receiving."

Professors and instructors are also playing a role in helping to spot the fraudsters who make it into classes, trying to identify them early on, before they can get their hands on financial aid dollars.

That, Emenaker said, can be tricky and it's also a balancing act. This semester was particularly hard because wildfires in the region cut off electricity and internet access to areas of Del Norte County for an extended period of time, heightening concerns about the potential of dropping students who might not be checking in to class because they simply didn't have access, or they had evacuated.

It's an issue compounded by some students' us of AI programs to generate papers or other course assignments, Emenaker said, noting he has at least one student who he's not sure actually exists.

"The difficult thing for me is I have real students who are using AI to turn in work and then, apparently, I have fake students who are pretending to be real students and I can't tell the difference between a real person using AI and AI pretending to be a real person ... or it's hard to tell," Emenaker said. "It's really difficult because you want to provide access and you want to assume good faith. . .. I think that's part of the way the scam works, right? On some level to do a good job at teaching, you have to assume goodwill. You are trying to overcome barriers."

Overall, Emenaker said he finds the idea of scammers targeting the state's community college system — with its very foundation built on opening doors to a higher education and training in an accessible way for the betterment of both students and society as a whole — "deflating."

"We're the largest college system the world has ever seen," he said. "This is the grand experiment in democratizing education and making higher education available to a broad swath of the public. It's an absolutely amazing thing we've done and then you have this. ... It feels like it's taking advantage of a very important and useful system and makes it harder for the people who need it to access it. ... It's a different level of violation when it feels like this."

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 323, or [email protected]

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Kimberly Wear

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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