From Varsity Blues to TOEFL Recall: College admissions rings target visas as well as the Ivy League

Operation Varsity Blues captured the imagination of the media and the general public thanks to the exposure of near-terminal narcissism among America’s wealth and celebrity classes. The inherent contradiction of stars and CEOs corrupting the college admissions process to give their progeny an even bigger boost in life boggled minds around the country.

But what if others have targeted the corrupt nature of college admissions for other purposes? Los Angeles Magazine thinks we should be more worried about Operation TOEFL Recall, which uncovered a ring servicing foreign students looking to game the system to acquire student visas:

On paper, Liu Cai was a model student. After moving to the United States from Beijing, he majored in biology at UCLA and volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club. A former teacher, Jose Echeverria, remembers him as “an excellent student” and a “great person” who was “easy to get along with.” Cai graduated in 2017 and landed a job at a health care technology company in Santa Monica. He appeared to be doing everything right.

So it came as a surprise when, on a Tuesday morning in March, federal authorities arrested him on suspicion of facilitating an international cheating ring. According to prosecutors, Cai, along with four current and former UCLA students and another student at Cal State Fullerton, helped at least 40 Chinese nationals obtain student visas by fraudulently taking the TOEFL, an English proficiency exam, on their behalf. Cai’s ringers would show up to testing sites with fake Chinese passports bearing their own photos but with the names of the clients. Where Cai slipped—and where investigators caught up to him—was charging 39 test registration payments to his credit card.

Any other day the UCLA bust might have made national headlines, but the news got swamped by a bigger, sexier college cheating scandal: Operation Varsity Blues. (The UCLA investigation was dubbed “Operation TOEFL Recall.”) While the UCLA case is less shocking—bribes in thousands of dollars instead of millions; Chinese high schoolers instead of Full House cast members—it represents an equally notable underbelly of American college admissions. If Varsity Blues is about the American ruling class perpetuating its privilege, the UCLA scandal reveals the extreme pressures and perverse incentives facing international students, many of them far less privileged and desperate to not screw up their shot.

LAM makes no claim that the visas were intended for any other purpose than those sought by Varsity Blues parents: to land a slot at an upper-division American university. Likely, the same applies to those who sought out these student visas, too. American universities are well regarded and prestigious, and wealthy parents from other countries would have all the same motivations and more as Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and everyone else caught up in the OVB investigation. Parents are less concerned about education than about social status.

However, it’s not difficult to see how that corruption could be exploited for other forms of corruption. The TOEFL Recall operation focused primarily on fraud perpetrated on behalf of Chinese nationals, although LAM notes that authorities suspect that other countries are exploiting similar rings. Considering China’s aggressive intelligence operations against the US, one could see how student visas would provide excellent cover for assets to infiltrate American colleges and conduct recruitment for future operations. At the very least, it would allow less-proficient recruits to gain experience in American culture without too much scrutiny. Even apart from that, don’t forget that one of the 9/11 hijackers came to the US on a student visa. Security issues regarding student visas have been somewhat addressed since then but not completely resolved.

For the most part, though, the biggest exploitation is of the students themselves. The end result is that students end up at schools which overmatch their skills, and the result is failure of one sort or another. Either the student flunks out, or the student fuels yet another cottage industry of corruption:

Chen tells the story of a student who faked his TOEFL score to get into Purdue University. Once there, he paid someone to attend classes for him. His (employee’s) grades were good enough that he got into Columbia University for grad school, but then, struggling, he hired someone to take his classes there, too. Hoping to land a job at Goldman Sachs, he sought Chen’s help. “I think his English was at a high school level,” Chen says. All told, the beleaguered Chinese student spent nearly $1.2 million on not going to school.

I’d be happy not to attend school for $600,000. Just transfer the funds to Ed Morrissey c/o Hot Air, and I’ll not attend the school of your choice. In fact, I can not attend multiple schools at the same time, so this offer is very much not exclusive.

The lesson from Operations Varsity Blues and TOEFL Recall is that college admissions needs a large-scale reform, and not just in athletic admissions. The connection to student visas make it clear that TOEFL Recall should be more of a concern and a priority. Even if security wasn’t the issue this time, that doesn’t mean it won’t be an issue in the future.