Nearly two months after the start of fall semester, PCC along with community colleges across the state continue to investigate the motives and consequences of the attempted Financial Aid scam that took place.
Assistant Superintendent and Vice President of Instruction, Laura Ramirez, who has been with the college since January 2021 and first became aware of the predicament that spring, claims that the issue has been a recurring one, only exacerbated this time by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
“The fact is it’s nothing new to the community college system,” Ramirez said. “The difference is that with the pandemic and with the large number of classes online, it became easier and easier for those fraudulent accounts to really take a big toll on our instruction.”
At the time, Ramirez and other college leaders began hearing reports of potentially fraudulent students from deans, faculty, and other California community colleges who were experiencing the same problem.
Speech Professor Jousha R. Fleming, was one of the many who reported the questionable activity to his higher-ups.
Fleming, despite having already encountered fake students over the summer, recalls feeling “hopeful that Fall would bring a stronger, real-student population.”
However, as previously reported, over 65,000 false applications would be filed to the CCC system, leading the Los Angeles times to officially dub the occurrence California’s “biggest financial aid scam attempt in recent history.”
In an email to the Courier, Fleming detailed how he became suspicious when he noticed the majority of his students had ID numbers that began with the same four digits, indicating that they had been enrolled at the college in a “fairly rapid succession.” Consequently, Fleming would come to realize that 28 of the 32 students in his class were in fact, not real.
“The first week was what I expected: only two students completed the mandatory check-in assignment that is due the third day of class, so by Thursday I was pretty sure we’d have to cancel the class,” Fleming wrote. “I contacted the two students who did complete the check-in assignment and prepared them for the situation.”
Just as predicted, the class was ultimately cancelled.
David Machen, who is also a professor in the Performing and Communication Arts Department, claims to have had a similar experience. Though, unlike the bots that had infested Flemings class, the ones in Machens had managed to turn in check-in assignments in a vain attempt to avoid being dropped.
“What was new and disconcerting was when I discovered that some bots are actually able to submit a check-in assignment,” Machen said. “I hadn’t seen this advanced capability before but it was easy for me to spot the fakes because the submissions were wildly different than the requirements from the assignment, but still, it was strange.”
While many instructors sought an easy solution through dropping sketchy students from classes, Ramirez asserts that it is not that simple.
“By law we’re an open institution, meaning we don’t have admission requirements, anyone can register for a class at a community college, and so [we cannot] just blanketly say ‘we think you’re fraudulent, we’re going to get you out’,” Ramirez said. “You have to give potential students the benefit of the doubt, there has to be some type of verification process.”
Thus, PCC’s administration, Student Services Division, and the department of Information Technology Services (ITS) worked together on the tedious process of improving the college’s technological infrastructure to properly identify these fraudulent accounts, much of which required analysis of variables provided by the California Community College (CCC) Chancellor’s office and the development of entirely new code that would comb through every single online, student account.
Student accounts and financial aid disbursements, then, were put on hold until vetted for authenticity.
When asked if it’d be fair to describe PCC enrollment rates this semester as disappointing after numbers reflected the dip from fraudulent accounts, Ramirez answered:
“Oh, absolutely. I think we definitely have lost enrollment. Not only do we have fewer students, but students are taking fewer classes and that’s for a mixture of reasons.”
Dwindling enrollment numbers due to the pandemic or other hardships, have the potential to amplify already prominent CCC funding issues.
In a 2022-2023 budget proposal dated Sept. 8, 2021, the CCC acknowledged underlying state funding issues in comparison to other higher education institutions in the state.
“For each student enrolled, the California Community Colleges receive less funding than the UC and the CSU do, even though the community colleges are likelier to enroll students who have faced the greatest barriers to educational attainment, including students from low-income families, first generation students, and black and Latinx students.”
In hopes of squashing the issue once and for all, the budget goes on to request $100 million for reworking the CCCApply portal, where incoming students are redirected to when applying to PCC, in order to establish multi-factor authentication features. These funds would focus on “modernizing” the platform in order to protect sensitive data and create further financial aid verification processes.
When asked if preventive action would be taken at PCC, such as through staff developments or training, Ramirez shook her head no.
“The ideal situation is that faculty shouldn’t have to worry about that,” Ramirez said. “All they should have to worry about is teaching their course, engaging with students, and not having to worry about is this a real student or not.”
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