By Rebecca Liebson and Xueying Luo
Editor’s note: Zoe Li’s quotes have been translated from Mandarin to English. Li’s first name has been changed in order to protect her identity.
The recent expulsion of several Chinese international students at Stony Brook University has uncovered a widespread scam that lures customers in by guaranteeing their acceptance into the country’s top graduate schools in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.
An investigation by The Statesman found that at least seven students were expelled for submitting falsified Stony Brook transcripts in their graduate school applications. However, these students claim that their transcripts were forged without their consent by outside companies who promised to help secure their acceptance into graduate school.
Stony Brook officials said this week that they did not intend to investigate these companies further and that students who used outside firms for help with admittance did so at their own risk. One step that has been taken by the university is to better educate students on academic integrity in the United States at orientation so they are not as vulnerable to such scams.
This issue was first brought to light in August when a former Stony Brook student, Jin Riuli, sued Chinese education consulting firm Diguo Jiaoyu along with a second student who had attended The Ohio State University. Jin claims that Diguo falsified her transcript without her knowledge, ultimately leading to her expulsion from Stony Brook. The company filed a counterclaim denying all charges on Sept. 27.
The lawsuit encouraged several other students to come forward with their own stories. Among them is former Stony Brook student, Zoe Li, whose story has been translated from Mandarin.
On April 26, 2018, Li attended a meeting with her academic advisor that changed the course of her life.
The advisor told Li she was being investigated by Stony Brook’s Academic Judiciary Committee for submitting a falsified Stony Brook transcript in her application to the New York University School of Professional Studies.
Li said she was bewildered. Up to that point she had never gotten in trouble at school. She wasn’t a straight A student, but she worked hard to earn a 3.0 GPA at Stony Brook.
Despite receiving solid marks, Li still had some anxiety about applying to graduate school. This led her to seek out the services of the Chinese education consulting firm, De Ren.
“Even though I thought my GPA met NYU’s requirement, I still felt like there was a possibility that they wouldn’t accept me,” she explained. “I saw the company guaranteed that I would 100 percent get into grad school if I went through them.”
These companies claim to have internal connections with university officials who will admit students into their schools so long as the students make a donation to the university.
While it’s unclear whether those claims are true, student testimonials collected by The Statesman have revealed that these companies often resort to unethical practices, including submitting falsified transcripts and other official documents on behalf of their clients in order to increase their chances of being admitted.
However, Diguo claimed in its countersuit that their clients were well aware of the documents they had prepared for them and sent to the universities on their behalf. The firm also specifically denied having any contact or financial transactions with Jin.
Hiring consultants for college and graduate school admissions is common practice in China. A 2011 survey from researchers at the University of Iowa found that 57 percent of Chinese undergraduate students studying in the U.S. reported using a consulting firm to assist with their applications.
While many of these companies provide legitimate services — matching students with the right universities, editing application essays, setting up interviews with admissions officers — others rely on fraud and forgery to get results. These companies prey on students with low grade point averages, promising to get them into prestigious universities like NYU and Columbia University even if they lack the necessary qualifications.
Telling the legitimate firms apart from the illicit ones is no easy task. A 2016 investigation from Reuters examined the business practices of New Oriental Education & Technology Group, one of the most widely used private education service providers in China. Several former New Oriental employees alleged that the firm had engaged in fraudulent behavior ranging from writing college application essays and fake teacher recommendations for their clients to falsifying high school transcripts.
A lack of oversight could intensify this problem in the coming years. According to a report from the China Global Television Network, in 2017 the Chinese government halted a practice that required education consulting firms to get licenses from provincial education bureaus, making it easier for new companies to form.
Some of the most popular firms used by Stony Brook students include Diguo (which also operates under the name Empire Education) and Ivy Elite Education . These companies advertise mainly through social media and word of mouth. In some cases, students are offered discounts for referring their friends.
The Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China set up a website to try and verify some of the existing firms, but only firms that are based in China are included.
Diguo and Ivy Elite are based in the United States so they are not included in the list. De Ren is based in China but it has not been verified by the Ministry of Education’s website.
In Li’s case, her mother’s friend suggested she use De Ren to apply to NYU.
“I know that when applying to school you have to supply a lot of materials and do a lot of paperwork,” Li said. “I was told this company would be able to take care of everything for me, so I thought it would it be easier.”
In June of 2017, Li contacted a representative from De Ren through the Chinese social media app, WeChat.
“They told me they could get me in through one of two ways,” she said. “They said they would either use their internal connections with admissions officers from NYU or they would make a donation in my name to help secure my spot.”
The two agreed that Li would pay $35,000 total for the company’s services, including a $2,000 charge up front.
The representative told Li that all she had to do was provide her official transcript and De Ren would take care of everything else.
Li said when she asked if she had to send the company any other materials, the representative wrote back, “Don’t worry. You won’t have any problems getting in. You just need to wait to get your offer.”
Graduate schools typically require transcripts to be sent directly from a student’s undergraduate university in a sealed envelope. Li said she was unaware of this rule at the time, so she assumed that having her transcript sent to NYU on her behalf was included in De Ren’s services.
When asked if she ever questioned De Ren’s methods, Li explained that based on the accounts of other students who had used De Ren and similar companies, she had no reason to doubt the firm’s legitimacy.
“I personally know a lot of students who have used this type of company,” she said. “A lot of them have even gotten through graduate school and are back in China now.”
Li was not so lucky.
After receiving word of her upcoming hearing, she tried contacting De Ren to find out what happened. The representative Li had originally spoken with repeatedly sidestepped her questions and eventually stopped responding to her altogether, she said.
On May 11, Li attended her hearing along with four other students who were under investigation for the same offense.
Three days later, she received an email from the Academic Judiciary Committee notifying her of its decision.
“The Academic Judiciary Committee has recommended that you be EXPELLED from the University, effective immediately, with a permanent notation of academic dishonesty placed on your academic record due to the accusation and the nature of the accusation,” it read.
“[When I found out I had been expelled] the first thing I felt was anger,” Li said. “I had been in high school and undergrad for seven years. During that seven years, I never cheated once. I finished all my school work perfectly, yet Stony Brook still decided to expel me because of this situation.”
Li channeled her rage into action as she set out to prove her innocence through the Academic Judiciary’s appeals process.
She gathered a variety of materials to support her case, including two character witness letters from former professors.
Li also convinced the purported CEO of De Ren, Wang Cheng, to send a video of himself admitting that he falsified Li’s transcript unbeknownst to her.
“I hereby certify that the transcript of [Zoe] Li, used to apply for New York University for admission of fall 2018 was manipulated and submitted by me on my company’s behalf,” the man said. “[Zoe] Li was not notified of any information related to this matter.”
Nevertheless, Li’s appeal was denied.
“I have reviewed all available documents and listened to the full audio of the hearing tape in order to understand the facts of the case,” Interim Assistant Provost for Academic Success at Stony Brook, Rachelle Germana, wrote in her decision. “Unfortunately, the additional information provided, including WeChat records and audio/video recordings, are not possible to verify. I have no way of knowing ‘who’ this person is and whether the information is ‘real’ and ‘truthful.’ Moreover, even if this information is taken as truthful, it is still suggestive that you were aware of the services and methods used to ‘help students gain admission’ who would not otherwise be qualified.”
Li said she believes that Stony Brook’s decision to expel her hinged on the fact that she would pay thousands of dollars just to increase her chances of getting accepted. “They don’t think that honest students would be willing to spend $35,000 just to get into graduate school,” she said.
But for many of Stony Brook’s 1,569 undergraduate Chinese international students, this is a small price to pay in return for an American education.
International students must pay out-of-state tuition to the tune of $24,540 per semester — roughly 3.5 times what their in-state counterparts pay.
This is on top of any additional time and money spent obtaining visas and relocating to the United States. International students are also ineligible for federal or state tuition assistance.
Li said she was upset at Stony Brook’s failure to warn students about companies like De Ren.
“Stony Brook doesn’t care about Chinese students’ futures and the time and effort they spent while studying here,” she said.
Officials from Stony Brook’s China Center — the office tasked with recruiting Chinese international students and providing them with guidance once they get to the university — refuted these claims.
“I care about international students (Chinese international students included) here at Stony Brook University, and I believe it is important to provide the knowledge and resources to support their academic success,” Associate Director for the China Center, Trista Lu, wrote in an email.
After learning about some of the cases of application fraud, Lu said she worked with the Academic Judiciary Committee and other international students this summer to devise new ways to educate international students about academic integrity in the United States education system.
As a result, all international students must now attend additional training sessions on academic integrity at orientation. In one of the sessions, students discuss various hypothetical scenarios involving academic integrity.
“The students will look at the cases and then discuss with the [International Student Ambassadors] on what would you do?” Lu wrote. “The international student ambassadors (ISAs) will help determine the red-flags in the cases that our international students (Chinese international students included) may or may not [be] aware [of] because of their cultural and educational background.”
When asked if Stony Brook has considered taking action against these companies in order to prevent more students from being expelled for application fraud, university spokesperson Lauren Sheprow gave the following response via email: “In general, students bear responsibility for their own admission documents and transcripts. If students engage an external organization to assist with their admissions documents, it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to ensure that the organization conveys accurate information on their behalf.”
NYU did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
De Ren could not be reached for comment.