Though the media has been obsessed with the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, in which wealthy parents like Full House’s Lori Loughlin and Desperate Housewives’s Felicity Huffman were accused of bribing coaches and proctors to help advance their children’s college prospects, another big scandal was just uncovered by the FBI: Operation TOEFL Recall.
A report from Los Angeles Magazine details how Liu Cai seemed like an ideal student on paper. After coming to the United States from Beijing, he dedicated his time getting good grades in his impressive UCLA biology program and volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club.
But he was far from the perfect student, and in March he was arrested by the FBI for supposedly helping at least 40 Chinese students fraudulently get visas after taking the TOEFL, an English proficiency test, on their behalf using fake passports. Cai’s alleged mistake was putting 39 test registration fees on his credit card.
Though there are examples of cheating everywhere, the issue seems to be particularly pervasive with foreign students. For example, last year, a professor at UC Santa Barbara told The Los Angeles Times that “Chinese students comprise 6 percent of the student body but account for a third of plagiarism cases.”
However, few people are willing to speak out due to the sensitive nature of the topic, according to Gary Pavela, head of the Academic Integrity Seminar, a program for students caught cheating.
“People are understandably reluctant to make many assertions here… It’s become very sensitive and somewhat politicized.”
Just last March, a professor at the University of Maryland was forced to resign after allegedly saying that all Chinese students cheat.
Experts suggest that cheating is more common in foreign students because of intense family pressure and stress about taking courses in a foreign language. In addition, Andrew Chen, who has a company helping Chinese study in America, claims that there is a cultural difference between how Asian and Western students view cheating.
“They think it’s a gray area, but in the U.S. it’s a no-no area.”
There have been examples of American students cheating at international universities as well. A Chinese state-run tabloid newspaper reported on foreign students cheating at Chinese universities back in 2017.
UCLA is far from the only college to be plagued with scandal. In 2016, the University of Iowa investigated an estimated 30 Chinese students for allegations of cheating, as reported by Reuters. Fifteen Chinese citizens were accused in Pennsylvania of using imposters to take standardized tests back in 2015, per The New York Times.
All in all, the Wall Street Journal estimated that in 2014-2015, universities reported that international students cheated at five times the rate of domestic students.