USA College Cheating Scandal: Systemic Problems Broader & Exacerbated Internationally

By James Tunkey

A college admissions cheating scandal has engulfed the United States following an investigation by the FBI.  Twenty-something wealthy families bought their children places at U.S. colleges, and undermined America’s cherished values and meritocracy. 

But this case is a drop in the bucket. 

Exam cheating is a major global problem. Cheating syndicates use social media and chatroom forums to collect and sell test content for Computer Based Tests.  Item harvesting is on the rise, with large numbers of test takers conspiring to each memorize a few questions verbatim to collect into cheat sheets on steroids that are sold to the next wave of test takers.  Proxy test taking by cheaters with photographic memories has become a big business.

And cheating is actually occurring on a far wider range of exams than the two primary standardized tests taken prior to applying to college.  As any adult who has ever taken a test to obtain a professional certificate can attest, certification is a big business.  America’s trillion-dollar education industry issues professional certificates globally for a wide range of standardized skills, from how to code in a particular software or to how to clean a child’s teeth.  In the author’s experience, international cheating on professional exams issued by American companies and non-profit organizations is a widespread problem. 

Professional certifications create opportunities for foreign nationals to make more money and gain access new markets.  These certifications are also a cornerstone for global growth of the U.S. services sector, as U.S. companies rely on candidates to demonstrate their skills meet a standardized level of proficiency.  Cheating on professional exams dilutes the integrity of the global economy: if you were sitting in an office of someone, and the probability one-in-one-hundred that the certificate hanging on their wall was bought not earned, how comfortable would you really be?  It also presents challenges to immigration processes and other challenges for policymakers.

While the recent U.S. college admissions cheating scandal has come to light after excellent work by the FBI, it is an unfortunate truth that the FBI does not have the resources to investigate every case of cheating.  Internationally, the FBI relies on the cooperation of foreign law enforcement partners who often have other investigative priorities.  Most of the responsibility for ensuring exam integrity is left to security departments at private companies and non-profits. 

Unfortunately, these “departments” are often only a team of one or two people with limited resources.  It is a hard truth that these under-resourced security departments have great difficulty in ensuring the integrity of an annual pool of candidates that may exceed hundreds of thousands of students globally. 

The current college admissions cheating scandal shows that even a small number of individuals caught cheating can cause the public to demand more regulatory oversight.  Favorable market positioning and self-regulatory authority can also be investigated and diluted after a failure to maintain integrity, as was the case for ratings agencies post-Lehman

Therefore, now may be the right time therefore for those American companies and non-profits that are in the certification game to examine whether more can be done to combat cheating.

About I-OnAsia:  I-OnAsia is a Hong Kong headquartered investigations and security consultant established in 2001.  A small but meaningful percentage of the 15,000 projects completed by I-OnAsia have been focused on exam cheating syndicates and other risks to exam security.  I-OnAsia provides subject matter experts on a contract basis to clients, performing local language searches of chat rooms and Dark Web sites in a hunt for exam cheating syndicates.  I-OnAsia performs undercover test purchases of documents that are suspected to contain stolen exam items.  I-OnAsia investigates fraud by trusted proctors and conducts security audits of exam sites.  Other services include the secure transport of exam documents, provision of magnetometer gates and wands at exam sites, and sweeps for hidden cameras.

About James Tunkey: James is Chief Operating Officer of I-OnAsia.  He holds a TRIUM MBA, a Certificate in Corruption Control and Organizational Integrity from Harvard’s JFK School of Government, and is a Certified Fraud Examiner.   James’ first exam integrity case involved a syndicate falsifying a medical certificate in 1996.  James leads I-OnAsia’s team of professionals responding to exam security breaches.  In the past year alone, James has: provided testimony to a foreign law enforcement agency on exam cheating syndicates and proxy testing agencies; investigated cheating syndicates in Asia and the Middle East; and audited test centers in over ten countries.