Chinese Company May Have Purchased Access to Admissions Officers at Top U.S. Colleges

Former Dipont employees have accused the company of helping students cheat on college applications

Chinese Company May Have Purchased Access to Admissions Officers at Top U.S. Colleges
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October 17, 2016

Continued From Part 1

"A limited number of resources to recruit international students"

There are some schools that have refused to participate in the partnership. Former Tufts University admissions officer Daniel Grayson says that Clagett invited him to the 2014 workshop. The company offered to provide a $6,000 stipend, airfare, and accommodation. Grayson's answer? "I responded with concerns about Dipont's reputation and ethical practices and declined the invitation."

The schools that do participate claim that the arrangements are appropriate and that they do not give any special considerations to Dipont students.

Vanderbilt University Dean of Admissions Douglas Christiansen stated that one of the officers working under him accepted the company's offer of airfare and expenses to attend, but did not take cash. That would not have been appropriate because the officer was working for Vanderbilt as a workshop attendee, said Christiansen, who also chairs the trustees of the College Board. The College Board owns the SAT college entrance test, which has been subject to widespread cheating in China.

When questioned regarding the application fraud claims at Dipont, Christiansen responded, "It is critical to note that one of the points of the workshop was to communicate the importance of submitting authentic application materials."

Pomona College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Seth Allen stated that he took business-class travel and expenses from Dipont in 2015. "We have a limited number of resources to recruit international students," he said. Pomona has a $2 billion endowment.

According to Louis Hirsh, chair of the National Association for College Admission Counseling's admissions practices committee, American admissions officers can accept travel expenses when they visit U.S. high schools, but they are prohibited from either offering or taking cash when either placing or recruiting U.S. students. However, said Hirsh, the profession's code of conduct has no stipulations regarding companies offering cash or reimbursing expenses as remuneration for advising international students.

In spite of what the participating colleges say, Dipont's advertisements promise their students that they will have an edge over other applicants. A Chinese-language ad for the 2015 summer program included an appearance from a Wellesley student crediting the success of her application to her meeting with a Wellesley admissions officer at a workshop. "I was ultimately accepted early by Wellesley, and the camp played a crucial role in that," she is quoted as stating.

Wellesley confirmed that one of its admissions officers interviewed a Dipont student at the workshop, and that that student had been accepted and is currently attending the school. Dean of Admission Joy St. John said that the officer did not take a cash payment because "we're doing work that's related to our profession," but did accept a business-class ticket.

The transaction, said St. John, is similar to accepting reimbursement of travel expenses from American high schools that invite the college to give general admissions advice, and according to Hirsh, these types of payments are allowed. St. John added that Wellesley chose not to attend the workshops last year after Dipont marketers filmed one of their officers without permission.

Projects and Services

Dipont is one of the main companies providing services to Chinese students applying to foreign colleges. The company has a network of international programs in Chinese high schools that sees around 2,000 graduates per year. If offers SAT tutoring, college counseling, and other "enrichment" services. One student may pay approximately $32,500 for college counseling alone, and, according to Zhang, the company's total annual revenue reaches roughly $30 million.

The two Americans who established CACE—the charity used by Dipont to pay college admissions officers—told Reuters that Dipont employed them as consultants at the time and that they established the nonprofit to help the company get access to the top colleges in the U.S.

"We have felt that having our own non-profit gives us a certain credibility," said Stephen Gessner, a former director of CACE and ex-president of the school board of Shelter Island, New York. "It helped us to recruit colleges."

According to Gessner, he and the other American consultant, Thomas Benson, gave Dipont control over the nonprofit three or four years ago, but Dipont says that CACE is independent. A board meeting agenda dating from December 2014 shows that all five directors of the organization are either employees of or consultants for Dipont, including Zhang.

One of the projects that the company is working on is helping and funding USC's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, which is running a new program to create "verifiable credentials" for Chinese students applying to U.S. colleges. The program, which is called the Admission Credentials and Counseling System, is trying to make a way to verify transcripts and other documents provided by Chinese high school students, said Executive Director Jerome Lucido.

According to Lucido, USC and at least 10 other universities have taken part in exploratory meetings for the project, including Duke, Stanford, MIT, and Columbia. These meetings included a trip to Beijing two years ago, subsidized by Dipont, attended by representatives from eight colleges. Lucido said that expenses for numerous meetings in the U.S. were covered by CACE.

The idea of verifying credentials, said Lucido, was actually proposed by a Dipont employee as a way to discover and stop fraud. Lucido confirmed that Zhand has paid two out of three installments on a donation of $750,000 to the center through CACE, a gift that he said "was carefully vetted through USC and found to be fully appropriate."

Lucido replied to former Dipont employee Bruce Hammond's warning email in 2014, requesting more information regarding the allegations of cheating. Email traffic indicates that Hammond replied but did not provide particulars.

"Shortcuts all around"

Sarah K. Lee was employed by Dipont from 2010 until 2012 as a director of college counseling. She said that she visited one of the company's counseling offices in Chengdu in 2010.

"It was 60 people printing out essays. The counselors, not the students, were typing them," she said. "I asked them directly: 'Do you write these essays for these kids?' They'd say, 'We have to do whatever our boss tells us or we lose our job.'" Lee stated that she witnessed similar acts at company offices in Beijing as well as in other cities.

Obio Ntia, a former manager for Dipont who helped to oversee the counselors, stated that he saw similar actions.

"Counselors went ahead and did everything for the student," said Ntia, including writing their application essays. Ntia tried to train the company's guidance counselors to help students think of their own ideas for essays, he said, but it was a struggle.

While there were some honest and diligent students, Ntia commented, generally "there were shortcuts all around. It was so endemic that you felt like there's nothing you could do about it."

One American guidance counselor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stated that during the 2014-2015 school year she worked at a Shenzhen high school that had one of Dipont's programs. She said that her supervisor ordered her to rewrite recommendations provided for students by their teachers. "I made up anecdotes about the students," she stated.

And a Chinese counselor who worked at a similar high school from 2011 until 2013 said that she was instructed by her supervisors to write essays for weak students. She was also told, she said, to give a student whose grades were poor a copy of his high school transcript. Although that student admitted later that he erased the bad grades from the transcript, she said, a manager told her not to notify a college in the U.S. that had accepted him.

Hammond, the former Dipont employee who sent the warning letter, had been employed at the company as a director of college counseling. He wrote that the company charged some students tens of thousands of dollars and that linking Dipont to elite college brands was central to the company's business model.

"Dipont is able to charge these fees," he wrote, "in part by creating the perception that they have special connections with admissions officers at leading U.S. institutions."