“Ghost Students” Haunt California Community Colleges as Fraudulent Applicants Steal Financial Aid and Class Spots

"Autobots, Enroll Out!" Illustration by Cindy Chan/The Guardsman

By Ann Marie Galvan

agalvan1@mail.ccsf.edu 

 

City College and the California Community Colleges system is facing a years-long problem with “ghost students,” who are either fake applicants looking to obtain a “.edu” email address, or applicants who receive financial aid but never attend classes. These fake students can clog class rosters and prevent real students from enrolling.

 

In a conversation with The Guardsman last year, Mark Johnson, the executive director of the department of marketing, communications, and public relations at Peralta College, said that “ghost students” commit fraud at two different levels: fraud “at the enrollment and application stage” is for financial gain, while application fraud at CCCApply, the online admission application center used by all 116 of California’s community colleges, is for the “.edu” email address, which can be used for free or discounted products and services. Community colleges grant the “.edu” email address at the time of application and not at payment and registration, unlike four-year schools.

 

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) has installed software to reduce the number of automated applications, but still more than 60,000 fake students applied for financial aid in 2021, resulting in the distribution of hundreds of thousands of dollars of financial aid money to bots, according to the Los Angeles Times. The CCCCO said that the “ghost student” phenomenon is “pandemic-induced” in a memo from January 2022.

“Autobots, Enroll Out!” Illustration by Cindy Chan/The Guardsman

 

Fake students also enroll in classes, filling up rosters and taking spots away from real students. Molly Oleson, journalism instructor at City College, said that her Data and Multimedia Journalism class was over-enrolled with 36 students, but 15 of those students were fraudulent. “I thought the class was over-capacity. I had a couple students on the waitlist who really wanted to take the class but weren’t able to get in because of the fraudulent students registered,” she said.

 

She did not know for sure the students were fraudulent until the first few classes when they did not show up, she added. While the “ghost students” at City College aren’t always noticeable by their name, there are other signs. Oleson said that “they don’t have pictures on their student ID and usually their ID number starts with ‘WA299.’” Oleson said she was instructed to look out for students registered with that number, although she thinks it’s possible bots are now registering under a different number.

 

The CCCCO, who maintains the admission portal for California community colleges, are aware of the issue. “We’re in the middle of upgrading CCCApply,” Dr. Aisha Lowe, vice chancellor for educational services and support at CCCCO, said. “We made lots of improvements to our technology, to be able to more rapidly identify cases of fraud.”

 

The CCCCO has updated their “system-wide technology infrastructure” that allows colleges to share suspected fraudulent applications and suspend or block accounts from enrolling, “effectively protecting all other colleges automatically.”

 

Additionally, the system now requires two-factor authentication, and while not every bot is caught, this reduces the number of malicious application attempts.

 

According to Lowe, transparency with data is a priority for the CCCCO, who reports any instances of fraud to the federal government. Students experiencing registration difficulties caused by bots overloading class lists are encouraged to contact the CCCCO.