A recent Reuters report on “How top US colleges hooked up with controversial Chinese companies” revealed that New Oriental, China’s biggest private education organization, is charged with academic fraud by “writing or polishing” parts of college applications.
The involved counselling division of New Oriental, Beijing New Oriental Vision Overseas Consultancy Co, told sino-us.com that “Vision Overseas never provided the service (of writing college applications) and the report does not conform to the facts.” The New Oriental also said that the company would “try its best to cooperate with the American International Recruitment Council, a standards-setting nonprofit, on its probe to clarify facts.
A 2013 Chinese film American Dreams in China is believed to be based on the success story of Michael Yu, the founder of New Oriental. A scenario of the film depicts that a Chinese company was charged with ghost-writing applications for students who want to get into the US schools. Now in real life, New Oriental is caught in the same dilemma, soon after its 10th anniversary in the New York Stock Exchange.
The Reuters report has garnered widespread attention in the US and China. One noticeable effect was that the American International Recruitment Council announced it will investigate the company. It is know that the AIRC certified Beijing New Oriental Vision Overseas Consultancy Co, about three or four years ago. Once the fraud accusations are confirmed, the U.S. standards council would revoke the certification.
It is known that there are now around 700 agencies in China certified by the Ministry of Education to help Chinese applicants get into foreign schools, while only a dozen of them are also certified by the AIRC.
New Oriental is not the only agency caught in the controversy. Reuters previously also reported that Shanghai-based Dipont Education Management Group is suspected of falsifying applications and bribing admissions officers with paid trips to meet their student clients. However, the news about Dipont failed to make any stir in market.
New Oriental is different. The Beijing-based behemoth is the largest and most renowned provider of private education services in China. Consulting for studying abroad hardly counted as the company’s main business.
Since CEO Zhou Chenggang took office in 2008, the consulting business began to prosper and gained more attention. Till now, Vision Overseas has become one of the biggest players in the industry and almost all agencies established later have adopted its business model.
New Oriental has made immediate response to the Reuters report. Through its official Sina Weibo, the company said inviting American admissions officers to China would help Chinese parents and their kids learn more about overseas schooling philosophy, while related activities would be totally free and open to the whole society.
About the ghost-writing scandal, the consulting company responded that all the quotations of the investigative report come from its former employees and the company would not make comments on the authenticity of the quotes. The remarks are interpreted by many as tacit consent to the accusation of falsification.
In an exclusive interview, Vision Overseas told sino-us.com that they would sign a cooperative agreement with all clients in which there is a special clause warning applicants not to provide any forged material or false information while consultants of the companies are prohibited to instruct or suggest student clients to falsify transcripts. However, the company did not mention any procedures to supervise and prevent its consultants or clients to make under-the-table deals.
One suspicious fact is a large amount of inquiries about the quality of ghost-writing by Vision Overseas on the Internet. Sino-us.com had found a Taobao shop certified as New Oriental Online Flagship Store, which was promoting a product specified as proofreading, polishing and innovative customizing Essay, CV, Recommendation Letter and Personal Statement. The product is priced between 179 yuan to 19,850 yuan.
When asked about the Taobao shop, Vision Overseas said it had never provided such a service and will look into it. Before the report came out, sino-us.com found the offering had been taken off the shop.
For a long time, agencies would repeatedly warn their student clients not to mention the fact that they are involved in their applications. Most of them believe that the US universities and graduate schools naturally repel consultancy companies.
The truth is, with China rising to be the biggest source of international students, American schools have dramatically changed their attitudes toward the agencies. Reuters indicated the context of the scandal that “American colleges are relying more heavily on Chinese undergraduates, who tend to pay full tuition.”
Sino-us.com talked with Clay Harmon, the international admissions officer of the University of Colorado Denver, who indicated the previous “disapproval” has changed into a “prudent attitude”. The Denver branch had started to work with educational agencies since 2013.
According to Harmon, the Denver branch management has agreed to pursue the strategy of joining hands with agencies, with the goal of increasing the number of international students through certified agencies.
While business practices of top players in the industry are being questioned, some medium-sized and small agencies are still active. Despite the biting cold outside, the small agency in which Yang Juan works is always kept warm by a bustling scene.
“Your grades are not good enough; later you need to ask your school to cook it. And no need to worry about application essays. It is our job to write them, right?” Yang Juan has repeated the lines time and time again. In her view, big companies could gain customers through reputation while agencies like the one she works for could only rely on customer satisfaction.
Although being seated in a small office, Yang felt proud that during the past years, she and her colleagues had resorted to same “business practices” to send over 1,000 Chinese students abroad. “There is always news that admission was revoked (due to application falsification), it never happens to us. So, we just keep going,” said Yang.
Now the situation is getting tense. Yang repeatedly noted during corporate meetings that consultants must speak in a careful way in front of customers while making sure all their practical problems could be addressed. “(We should) help them find ideal schools while avoiding ourselves being entangled in any trouble.”
“The student writes terrible English.”
“Then you must work on it and make up something new. Be careful, don’t make it obvious.”
“I feel I’m now almost like a playwright. I could hardly think of anything new.”
In Yang’s office, conversations like this one is not unusual, indicating ghost-writing has become common practice.
“That’s exactly why we’re here. Student clients coming to us are either not good at English writing or they’re not sure about it, so they expect us to work out more efficient and professional applications,” Yang told sino-us.com.
The most essential part of Personal Statements (PS) is social practice experiences. Agencies usually would let applicants to fill out a detailed information sheet, and then writers hired by agencies could work out a PS based on the information provided. “If the applicant has no hobbies, then we would make up something; if they’ve got no social practice, they would be presented as president of student union.”
Things sometimes would get really embarrassing when several presidents of the same student union would emerge in the same year of the same school. In order to avoid that, Yang would double-check with her co-workers many times.
All the practices are defined as academic fraud by Americans, while Yang believed compared with transcript falsification, working in the background that can hardly be checked is a wise act.
Teachers’ recommendation letters are surrounded by the same fog. In the US, recommendation letters are regarded as confidential; even students are not allowed to seal them off, while in China, the letters are written by agency staff and sent to teachers for their signature by students.
“There are two types of recommendation letters—one is the paper edition with teachers’ signature on it, the other is to leave teachers’ email addresses in the application system, and then teachers would fill out standardized recommendation forms,” Yang said, noting forgery is easily applicable to both and could hardly be pinned down.
All the practices determine prices paid to the agencies, ranging from 10,000 to 600,000 yuan. The lowest level of fee only includes ghost-writing and submitting materials, while the ultimate solution package would cover all things including language and interview training. Some agencies even would sign a “rating agreement” with clients, guaranteeing they would ultimately get enrolled into the top 30 US colleges or schools.
Two years have passed and Xu Qiao still lives with her regret. In order to start a new life in the US, Xu and her parents paid 200,000 yuan to agencies and college after selling family house and car. But when she came to the foreign land, she soon found herself to be unable to keep up with her classmates.
“I had no idea what the teachers are talking about and could not go along with my classmates,” she recalled. Soon, her act of falsifying applications was reported by a friend close to her and Xu was dismissed by her college. Not knowing how to protect her own rights, Xu and her family finally gave up demanding compensation from the agency that had ‘facilitated’ her march to study abroad.