State Watch

65,000 fake students applied for financial aid in community college scam, authorities say

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More than 65,000 fake students applied for financial aid at multiple California community colleges in what is believed to be one of the state’s biggest financial aid scams in recent history, the Los Angeles Times reported.

During a routine check of federal aid records a few weeks ago, Patrick Perry, director of policy, research and data for the California Student Aid Commission, said he found more than 60,000 more applicants who all fell under the same group: first-time college applicants who earned less than $40,000 a year and were seeking a two-year degree. 

“We were kind of scratching our heads going, ‘Did or didn’t 60,000 extra older adult students really attempt to apply to community colleges here in the last few months?’ ” Perry said, according to the Times.

After alerting college officials, it was revealed that faculty and staff were also noticing abnormal enrollment patterns in data for community colleges. Employees and officials believe these “students” were fake bot accounts.

California Community Colleges officials have not officially stated whether any financial aid was disbursed to fake students. However, Perry says that officials caught the attempted fraud early. 

“I can’t tell you whether any money has gone out or not, but my guess is probably not,” he said, the Times reported. “I think we’ve caught it.”

It is unclear what type of financial aid may be involved in the fraud — state-funded Cal Grants, federal Pell Grants or COVID-19 emergency relief grants. 

The fake applications are also confusing college officials trying to ascertain true student enrollment numbers.

Perry told Times that the number of suspected bot applications had surpassed 65,000 since last week. U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General said the investigation is still ongoing, according to the news outlet.

However, the financial aid commission and community colleges have found similarities in admission and financial aid applications, including missing phone information or having the same phone listed on numerous applications, using an email address, students listing their age as old as 90 and repeated addresses to sometimes vacant houses.

After connecting the similarities, Perry said that college officials concluded that the applications were fraudulent.

Some faculty are even doing their own research into the suspicious accounts. For example, two journalism professors from San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, Calif., said they are looking into the inconsistencies in applications.

“I had a very real gut feeling that this was defrauding students and taxpayers,” one of the professors, Adriana Brogger, said, according to the Times.

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