It was in the fleeting weeks of summer that Patrick Perry, director of policy, research, and data at the California Student Aid Commission (CSC), began to note key inconsistencies in enrollment numbers for the upcoming academic school year.
It appeared that a flood of students, most of which were over 30 and earning less than $40,000 a year, had suddenly applied to California community colleges, a striking rate considering the sluggish enrollment numbers they had seen throughout the pandemic.
Perry would later tell the Los Angeles Times:
““We were kind of scratching our heads going, ‘Did or didn’t 60,000 extra older adult students really attempt to apply to community colleges here in the last few months?’”
Elsewhere, professors and faculty at community colleges began noticing that an alarming number of recently enrolled students had registered addresses that lead to vacant homes, repeating email accounts and similar student ID numbers—suggesting they had all applied to the same community college at the same time.
In an August 30 memo from California Community Colleges (CCC) Vice Chancellor of Digital Innovation and Infrastructure Valerie Lundy-Wagner to her colleagues, Lundy-Wagner would officially state that about 20 percent of traffic to the OpenCCC site was identified as “malicious and bot-related”.
Perry, his colleagues and an array of college administrators across the CCC system had uncovered the threads of a mass Financial Aid scam.
Back at PCC, newly elected Academic Senate President Gena Lopez would be briefed on the issue by members of the AS Executive Committee over summer too.
“It is unfortunate that some would take advantage of our system for their own gain with no regard for students who are trying to educate themselves or the faculty who have made it their mission to be educators,” Lopez said.
According to the same Los Angeles Times report, Pasadena City College was one of the five community colleges hit with the highest number of false enrollee’s, alongside Cerritos, Chaffey, Merced and Antelope Valley College.
Courses with a high number of sections, such as College 1, a popular introductory course at PCC geared toward fostering academic and career success in incoming students, had seen the largest amount of false enrollments.
While the U.S. Department of Education continues to investigate the matter, some have begun to suspect that the attempted fraud was a means of gaining access to the $1.6 billion in federal emergency COVID-19 relief funds colleges have received for low-income students.
According to Lopez, the Academic Senate encouraged faculty to heavily monitor their Canvas analytics for student involvement and establish check-in assignments to validate that their students were, in fact, a real person.
However, while Perry maintains that the fraudulent activity was likely caught before any monetary disbursements were made and Lundy-Wagner assures that CCC security systems are being tightened, PCC has left affected faculty, staff and students in the dark.
As of the date of publication, the college has yet to formally address the breach for those impacted nor implement protocols to help faculty appropriately identify the issue if presented again.
“This is an unprecedented time at PCC and our nation,” Lopez said. “I would recommend that students and faculty be extra vigilant while protecting their personal information and to check in with each other to ensure the validity of their enrollment…”