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While many in the business school world believe the MBA is losing its appeal, some potential students, it would seem, are still prepared to pay vast swaths of their salaries just to ensure a place in a top North American business school.
Sums of between $5,000 and $6,000 have been changing hands between wannabe MBA students and professional impersonators. The latter are expert at sitting the online examinations required for business school entry. Their skill guarantees their student paymasters the high scores needed to get a place in a top-notch school.
Earlier this year in Baltimore, the first of five test impersonators was convicted of fraudulently completing business school entry tests – including the Toefl test, which tests students’ English language abilities, and the GMAT test, widely regarded as the passport to business school.
A second impersonator was sentenced last week and a further two are due for sentencing in the the US in the coming months. A fifth member of the same group was arrested last month, and another is still at large, while a sixth member of the gang has never been caught.
This ring of male fraudsters worked up and down the east coast of the US, impersonating both men and women and taking the test on their behalf.
They ranged from 26 to 56 in age, and were often Chinese nationals with US student visas.
Dave Wilson, president of GMAC, the council that authors the GMAT test, says GMAC cancelled 185 scores over a two-year period (in which it would have administered about 500,000 tests) because they were deemed to be fraudulent.
Many of the students for whom the tests were taken had already been accepted on some of the top schools in the US and Canada – from Harvard to Stanford and Toronto – and some had begun their programmes.
A handful had even completed their degrees, which were subsequently rescinded. Raymond Nicosia, director of test security at ETS, which administers the tests, says the schools acted swiftly to bar the culprits. “We were happy the schools acted so aggressively,” he says.
Zhigang Cao, the first impersonator to be sentenced, was given 30 months in jail in addition to the 18 months he had already spent there – a total of four years. On completion of the sentence he will be deported. Mr Wilson says he does not think any of the impersonators believed they would get such stiff sentences.
Most of those caught cheating in educational tests – and Mr Nicosia is swift to point out that this is less than one 1 per cent of the total candidates – are merely given a slap on the wrist. But because the identity fraudsters used fake passports to gain entry to the test rooms, their cases are forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
GMAC is understandably keen to draw a line under the impersonation problem. “We’re stepping up security in all ways, using digital photographs and biometrics,” says Mr Wilson.
Yet as this door closes, others open. Business schools are becoming increasingly wary of the documentation they receive from many applicants. One of the most obvious scams is to have the obligatory essays written by one of the many specialist essay-writing agencies - these agencies, which charge around about $100 for their services.
However, the latest trend relates to transcripts of previous academic qualifications and reference letters.
Cheryl Millington, director of MBA admissions at the Rotman school at the University of Toronto, says that since September 2004 her department has clearly identified 11 clear cases of fraudulent transcripts. These list the academic qualifications the student has achieved together with grade breakdowns and subjects studied and so on. In theory the transcripts are sent directly from the universities where the students previously studied in security-sealed envelopes.
Fraudulent examples used to be easy to identify because they were crude photocopies. But with advanced copying technologies, admissions departments are finding it increasingly difficult to pinpoint fakes. Security-coded paper and crested envelopes are easy to copy, says Ms Millington says. Detection often relies on spotting minor discrepancies between the transcripts and the students’ performance at an interview, she says.
One of the problems with transcripts is that although schools can write to the undergraduate university to confirm the scores, often they can take months to respond. Sometimes they do not respond at all. The undergraduate universities can also make mistakes listing grades. “One of the biggest issues is being fair to the applicant,” says Ms Millington.
She believes one of the issues facing applicants is the huge pressure to get into the “right” schools, and that this is persuading applicants to alter data.
“If you know you are borderline, then why not change a few of the grades . . . ”
When culprits are identified at one of the Canadian business schools, the school sends out a document alert to all other business schools or universities in the country. This, says Ms Millington, is the action that troubles fraudsters most.
She says that although she is confident schools such as Toronto are catching most of the culprits, she is not sure they are catching all of them. Much relies on the eagle eyes of employees.
One example she cites is that of two applicants from different cities, working in different industries, with different referees. However, the reference letters were almost identical, showing the same idiosyncratic use of the English language.
Because the use of academic transcripts is so widespread, and the cost of producing forgeries so low, this is an issue that is likely to tax business schools most in coming years, both in North America and increasingly in Europe and Australia.