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5May2014

Application Agents

by Originally Published in Hindustan Times Education Supplement

There have been a few stories in the news recently about the rampant cheating and forgery of international college applications by Chinese students. According to reports, China’s single child system produces highly competitve, anxious parents with rising incomes, who are preyed upon by aggressive agents that promise to take care of all the requirements for the college application. These agents practically guarantee success and all the parents have to do is pay the fee for service. Furthermore, it is argued, that while the US percieves the falsification of credentials an egregious violation of the honor system, Chinese families see nothing wrong with it because it has always been culturally acceptable/required to cheat. Of course all of these explanations reduce the problem to simple cause and effect and misaligned cultural value systems, which if eliminated, would make the problem go away. 


Commentators prescribe all kinds of remedies, ranging from adding (Western) morality and values training to the already long college prep process in China, to changing the application process to include in-person writing samples and interviews for Chinese applicants (already creating a booming business for such ‘verification’ centres).


In India, as well as many other parts of the world, the problem of fake college applications exists on a smaller scale. And when it does occur the conditions are pretty much the same as they are in China – anxious, rich parents, a hyper competitive ecosystem and moral compromises. As deadlines approach around the months of October through December, I get calls from tense parents asking about application services. As I start the conversation using words like ‘support’ and ‘guidance,’ the parents who wanted essays written and letters drafted decline. But others, who are baffled by the application process, yet believe that their child’s achievements can shine through in their own words, who believe in a teachers ability to effectively articulate a student’s promise, opt to work with experienced counselors whose input is professionally measured. These are the type of counselors family’s should seek, if at all.


Note that I used the word ‘counselors’ not ‘agents’ – the distinction being in what each will promise you. The press surrounding the Chinese situation makes ‘agent’ sound like a dirty word, but really it’s a very transparent description of organizations which are paid by colleges to find the right students for enrollment. They are not promising anything they cannot deliver, but most competitive colleges, where Indian students want to enroll, do not employ agents. In fact these not-so-competitive colleges which engage agents are identified as half of the problem in China. These colleges are competing for Chinese students who can pay full tuition (most domestic students get at least partial financial assistance). They may not care whether the student is who he claims to be on paper, it only matters if tuition is paid. Whether you are Chinese, Indian, Russian or Norwegian, enrolling in one of these colleges might be a mistake for a lot of reasons – it may not be the right fit for you academically or socially, it may not give you the diversity of opportunity you are seeking by going abroad (a small college with a large percentage of Chinese students will not be too different from China itself), and you will likely not be learning with a challenging peer group, rather you’ll be side by side with all the ‘payers’ not the achievers.


Thankfully the problem of fraudulent applications is not prevalent in India today. But let’s not be too smug, integrity is as precarious as it is important. Indian applicants should stay vigilant, stay honest and do what they know is right, not what the next person is doing.
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