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Nov 02, 2016

Once again, as high school students across China agonize over their American college essays, allegations of fraud plague the education industry. Dipont Education Management Group, a large Shanghai-based educational consultancy, has become the most recent target of accusations, with reports circulating that staff turned a blind eye to high-level application fraud that included buying access to current admissions officers at U.S. colleges.

As someone who has worked in the same industry, the claims hardly come as a surprise. Frequent revelations of fraud highlight the ethical issues that continue to blight China’s private education firms.

As more and more high school students look abroad for college education, a vast industry specializing in liuxue zixun — “study abroad consultancy” — has sprung up across China. Companies guide students through the application process and provide training for standardized tests such as the American SAT. Last year, professional services firm Deloitte estimated total revenue from application training at 4 billion yuan ($590 million), with test prep generating substantially more.

Consultancy positions represent potentially lucrative sources of income for experienced English teachers, Mandarin-speaking expatriates, and recent Chinese graduates who have spent their university years abroad. They are brought in to help high school students navigate the pitfalls of the sprawling and complex American college application system. Their responsibilities broadly involve ensuring that the assortment of materials students are expected to provide — standardized test scores, extracurricular activity lists, personal essays, and the like — are completed on time, reflect the student in an acceptable manner, and are written in comprehensible English.

Stories like the Dipont scandal shine a light on the organized corruption which plagues the industry’s upper echelons, but they ignore the fact that lower-level consultants are confronted with ethical dilemmas on an almost daily basis. This is partially because of the nature of the American application system, and partially because the industry lacks overarching guidelines to determine the boundaries of consultants’ job responsibilities.

At the moment, for example, tens of thousands of Chinese high school students are sweating over their Common Applications and college-specific supplementary essays. Readers familiar with higher education in the U.S. will recall that these essays often take the form of personal growth stories, in which the student details an experience that played a formative role in shaping their character. Almost any subject is fair game, and admissions officers on the other side of the world are unlikely to follow up on what they read. The room for stretching a story’s credibility, therefore, is substantial.

In my experience, much of the groundwork for essay consultancy revolves around bridging the supposed “value divide” between Chinese and American society. Ask a typical Chinese student to write about their experience at a business competition, for example, and they may mention how they sacrificed their personal aspirations for the good of the team, burned the midnight oil to complete a project, and shared in the achievements of the collective — little of which appeals to an admissions officer seeking evidence of creativity, critical thinking, individual responsibility, and leadership.

The challenge for the consultant is to reframe the student’s achievements in terms more amenable to an admissions officer. This can be problematic, however, when you are advising a student who lacks the fundamental self-knowledge to write engagingly about their personal experiences.

A ‘gamified’ culture has emerged whereby getting into a better-than-expected school represents a victory for the consultant. If this is achieved by less than scrupulous means, then it can be overlooked; after all, how many kids complain when they were expecting a state school but make the Ivy League?

It is a barb commonly hurled at the Chinese educational system that while it produces diligent students with often exceptional powers of recall, it ignores the soft skills required to build up self-awareness. At no time is this more obvious than during the application process. A student may be incapable of describing the goal of her extra chemistry reading in terms any deeper than “possessing more knowledge,” or may say that he joined the swim team because he “wanted to relax.” The superficiality with which such experiences are described bespeaks a lack of introspection that runs much deeper than mere unfamiliarity with the “American” value system; in fact, it is a key shortcoming of the Chinese educational model as a whole.

How should the consultant proceed in such a situation? Presumably, stimulating the student to think about their desires and motivations is fine, while writing the essay for them is crossing the line. But what about the substantial gray area that exists between these two extremes? If I make detailed suggestions and the student simply copies what I say, is that bad practice? What about adding a phrase or sentence here and there to imply a greater depth of thinking? Or refining the language of the essay in a way that is not reflective of the student’s ability to communicate in English?

The contradictions inherent in the consultant’s role remain unresolved — and are perhaps even irresolvable — by an industry-wide code of conduct. Consequently, the idea of good practice is dependent on company culture and the experiences of one’s colleagues. But this is not an industry that can be trusted to self-regulate.

The consultant is widely portrayed as an impartial guide, funneling students away from unnecessary distractions and toward the bountiful individual experiences that lie within themselves. Yet in practice, this image is frequently a fallacious one. Consultants are continually caught between a rock and a hard place. You can either choose to uphold vaguely defined professional ethics and potentially diminish the student’s chances of getting into their preferred university, or you can focus on satisfying the client and relinquish loyalty to a morally malleable code of conduct.

The unbridled marketization of the industry pulls many toward the latter option. In a hyper-competitive sphere where performance targets are frequently measured by the rankings of the colleges to which the student is admitted, a “gamified” culture has emerged whereby getting into a better-than-expected school represents a victory for the consultant, their colleagues, and the reputation of the agency. If this is achieved by less-than-scrupulous means, then it can be overlooked; after all, how many kids complain when they were expecting a state school but make the Ivy League?

At my former consultancy, I never witnessed colleagues take this attitude to a point I defined as unethical. Yet the fact is that those for whom application fraud is unconscionable are subject to the same lack of constraints as mercenary consultants willing to ghostwrite entire essays for their students. The inadequacy of industry-wide effort to eliminate essay fraud at the root tarnishes the reputation of above-board consultants everywhere. It also places the onus too squarely on admissions officers to call out suspicious applications at the final hurdle.

Two current trends may help to address these concerns. The first is the fact that American universities are becoming increasingly reliant on interviews. In recent years private interview companies like Vericant and InitialView have sprung up to supplement student applications from abroad. As it is clearly more difficult to fake interpersonal and linguistic skills in a live interview than on paper, this shifts the consultant’s focus away from essay-writing and toward the more holistic process of personal training.

The second is the government’s ongoing effort to bring the gaokao — standardized tests taken at the end of high school — more in line with international educational standards. Currently, the main recourse available for most Chinese students hoping to study abroad is to opt out of the gaokao in favor of a Western exam board. Personal shortcomings left unaddressed by studying within the domestic system are thus thrown into sharper relief and become a source of anxiety for parents and students alike. Indeed, the consultancy business makes most of its money by striking a balance between fueling and soothing this anxiety.

Creating a new cohort of introspective, self-aware, and creative state-educated young people will encourage foreign higher education systems to accept Chinese students on their own terms, reduce reliance on unscrupulous consultants, and allay fears that students will arrive at college maladjusted. The long-term success of gaokao reform will thus depend on the extent to which the government is willing to accept that educational systems must foster key interpersonal skills as much as they demand intellectual rigor.

(Header image: A girl reads a leaflet at an educational consultancy event in Beijing, Oct. 22, 2016. VCG)