The college counseling company at the heart of the “Varsity Blues” cheating scandal did more than just help students get into college through fraudulent means. It also had its employees pose as students to take online courses for them once they were enrolled, to make sure they passed.
Earlier this week, a California woman was charged and agreed to plead guilty to paying $9,000 to the counseling company, known as The Edge College & Career Network, to have an Edge employee take online courses in the place of her son while he was an undergraduate at Georgetown University to make sure he graduated.
It was the first charge filed in the college admissions scandal relating to cheating by a student who was already enrolled. The rest of the 35 parents charged by federal officials face allegations of cheating to gain admission to highly-selective colleges.
Apparently, if you needed to cheat to get into a college, it might take some more cheating to keep up with the requirements to actually graduate.
The legal documents outlining the charges against the parent, Karen Littlefair, paint a picture of people who view college credit as something that can easily be bought as a commodity.
In the summer of 2017, the head of Edge, Rick Singer, sent an email to Littlefair letting her know that they “had someone to take the classes” for her son and that he would let her know “what it would take to complete so we can bill,” according to the court filings. That Edge employee apparently then set up an email address posing as the student so he could submit coursework in the student’s name.
At one point, the Georgetown student, who is not named in court documents but who has been identified as James Littlefair, was required to meet with his professor via video. Karen Littlefair said that her son would be overseas during the scheduled time, so she asked Singer to have someone “stand in” as Littlefair during the video meeting instead. If movies sometimes employ stunt doubles, perhaps the online equivalent is a Study Double.
After a Study Double successfully completed two Georgetown online courses for Littlefair, the mother wrote Singer again saying they were “going to need help for sure with one more course.” This time, she asked if there was some state school where the Study Double could take an online history course for her son.
Singer then arranged for his employee to take a course at Arizona State University posing as the Georgetown student. “The credits earned at Arizona State University were then sent to Georgetown and credited to Littlefair’s son on his academic transcript,” according to the legal documents.
Georgetown officials said in a statement that since they became aware of the incident, they “have implemented or are in the process of implementing a number of additional measures to safeguard the security and identify of online course participants, including the development of a more robust learning management system that provides better access tools to prevent cheating, along with providing enhanced student learning data to help identify potentially inappropriate behavior.”
James Littlefair graduated from Georgetown last year, but the admission of guilt by his mother to paying for someone to take courses for him could lead to his degree being stripped. Though the university cannot comment on individual students, Georgetown officials said in their statement that “when the University learns of a potential serious violation of the Honor System after a student has graduated, the Honor Council will investigate and adjudicate the case and may recommend sanctions up to and including the revocation of the student’s degree.”
ASU said it is also investigating the situation, as it does for any allegation of academic dishonesty. “After our review, we will determine if any changes are needed to our policies and protocols related to maintaining academic integrity,” said a statement by the university.
In the wake of the legal investigation, James Littlefair has resigned from his job as a staffer for U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, according to a report yesterday in Politico.
Federal officials in Massachusetts are recommending that Karen Littlefair be sentenced to four months in prison, a fine of $9,500 and a year of supervised release. Her lawyer, Kenneth B. Julian, told the Los Angeles Times that his client “took the earliest opportunity to take responsibility for the conduct set forth in the plea agreement,” adding: “She’s doing the right thing, early.” EdSurge could not reach James Littlefair for comment.
Changing the Rules
The issue of safeguarding online courses from fraud has long been a concern of colleges, and of federal regulators.
Many colleges employ online proctoring services that check the identities of students at the beginning of courses and during exams to prevent Study Doubles from standing in.
It is unclear whether the courses Littlefair took used such proctoring tools, but in its statement, Georgetown said “we are also continuing to work to enhance online proctoring solutions, and utilize anti-plagiarism technologies.”
Russell Poulin, executive director of WCET, a nonprofit promoting online-learning programs, said in an interview with EdSurge that the issue of safeguarding online courses was discussed this year in the negotiated rulemaking process to renew the federal Higher Education Act, which he participated in.
“There was language in the rules already that you had to ensure that the student who registers for the course is the same one who took any assessment,” he said.
His group argued in the federal rule-making process that colleges should also be required to do more to guard against Study Doubles in face-to-face classes as well. Such a provision has not made it into the rules, however.
“There are things that are happening like this where people are going into 400-person classes and imitating students and taking the class for them,” he said. “There’s enough of it going on both online and face-to-face in terms of cheating that it is concerning.”
One coda to the Georgetown cheating incident: Karen Littlefair ended up asking for some of her money back from Singer, after her son only earned a C in one of the online courses and “the experience was a nightmare,” according to the court filings. That request for a discount wasn’t granted, though. As Singer replied, “the process was a nightmare for us all.”