What can institutions do about the rise of ‘ghost students’?

In March, three California women were indicted for obtaining nearly $1 million in federal student loans.

A perfect storm of circumstances has led to a significant rise in fake students applying to college and enrolling in classes to take advantage of the higher education system. Ghost students, also called “Pell runners,” have caused particular havoc in California, upsetting the institutional security measures and often stealing millions of dollars in financial aid.

In July 2021, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office discovered that about 20% of the state’s college applications were scams. Of the 2.3 million who had applied, 460,000 were found to be fake. Pierce College in Los Angeles recently gutted nearly 3,000 “students” after discovering that 36% of its enrollment consisted of phony accounts.

At the most nefarious level, scammers use the identity of other unsuspecting persons to collect financial aid money. In March, three California women were indicted for obtaining nearly $1 million in federal student loans. The San Diego Community College District is still reeling after discovering it was paying out over $100,000 in fraudulent claims in 2021, Faculty Focus reports.

Aside from stealing money, ghost students who clear an institution’s cybersecurity measures and enroll in classes can take advantage of its cloud storage and VPN services. Furthermore, they use their newfound student email address to commit other scams.

The large influx of phony students registering for classes threatens to push out legitimate students. It can drive institutions to erroneously expand certain course offerings due to artificial demand. It can also trigger financial fraud protocols on innocent students and strip them from the courses they’re taking, CalMatters reports.

“We’re frustrated with the fact that some of these courses are getting filled really quickly,” Leticia Barajas, the academic senate president at East Los Angeles College told CalMatters. “We see it as an access issue for our students.”

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Why the explosion

Institutions really began to see an uptick in ghost students after the pandemic. The proliferation of online and hybrid classes made it more difficult for professors to judge the actual attendance rates of their students. Additionally, the California Department of Education scaled back verification measures, such as providing family income, to apply to an institution, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Community colleges are easier targets for ghost students because they often have less robust cybersecurity measures. California community colleges are even easier because they do not require a social security number to apply, Chronicle reports. However, fraudsters may try elsewhere; Iowa Western Community College recently caught over 100 ghost students trying to scam to receive financial aid, KETV reports.

How to get smart

EdTech advises institutions to invest in layered identity management and cybersecurity software. Such examples include multi-factor authentication, biometrics and other types of identity verification tools.

Faculty can also take some practical steps to catch ghost students. They can look for consecutive ID numbers, emails that don’t match student names and birth dates that suggest students are far older. Institutions can also kick out students from online classes if they don’t show up for the first day of class.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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