Companies Say Blockchain Could Have Prevented College Admissions Scandal

Dec 19, 2019

One of the most eye-catching aspects of the recent Varsity Blues admissions scandal was that fake athletic profiles were created for students to help them get into highly-selective colleges through so-called “side doors.”

Now, several companies that sell student-record systems based on blockchain—the technology behind Bitcoin—are pitching their products as a way to prevent that kind of fraudulent record tampering in the future.

The latest entrant is the Trust Assurance Network, which last week announced that it raised $2.5 million in seed funding from Blue Book Ventures and other investors. Its leaders say the service can be used for a variety of functions at schools and colleges, including verifying credentials, tracking donations and payments, or handling other student records.

“One of the things that happened in this admissions scandal was that records came through side doors that were not validated—and they were altered from their original state and were not detected,” says Bart Meltzer, CEO and founder of the Trust Assurance Network. “Our transactions are 100 percent transparent. You can audit us and look at the transactions on the blockchain to see what’s been going on in our network.”

In the case of Varsity Blues, the system might have revealed that the athletic profiles were forged, he says.

The first use of the blockchain-based system has been for a K-6 educational app called SpoonRead. The app delivers children’s books in short chunks—on laptops, tablets or smartphones—and quizzes students about the content along the way. When parents buy books on the app, a portion of the proceeds can go to the school to buy supplies for the classroom.

Samantha Nichols, a teacher at South Barber Elementary, in Kansas, is among the early users of SpoonRead. Nichols says she looks forward to having some extra funds to buy classroom supplies. “Kleenex are what I’m out of right now because the kids are all sick,” she says.

She says she had no idea that the app ran on blockchain. “I’m not very familiar with that,” she says of the underlying tech. “It’s a fun game that the students like to play.”

Meltzer says the goal of the Trust Assurance Network is to make the blockchain part invisible to end users. “Nobody knows that we're even using our software, even knows that the blockchain is underneath it,” he says. “If grandma or grandpa gets an email that says their grandchild [wants them] to come in and make a donation, they put their credit card in just like normal. Essentially, what we do is we actually take that credit card transaction on the fly, generate the tokens on the blockchain so they never have to worry about purchasing tokens and distributing tokens.”

Blockchain is a decentralized system where every record is linked and transparent, and any alterations leave a trail that supposedly can't be hidden.

Some have questioned whether there is a need for blockchain in student records, considering that other kinds of encryption techniques already exist to protect and verify things like credentials. One cryptographer, for instance, said in an EdSurge interview last year that while he thought blockchain was a beautiful technology, that it seemed overkill for education. “I just totally don't get the applications in education at all," he said, since “having electronic documents with digital signatures [is an] old and beautiful and wonderful tech—a well established, non-disruptive technology which deserves to be more widely used but it has nothing to do with the Blockchain.”

Meltzer, however, argues that their system lets verification be done more cheaply than other means thanks to blockchain.

Other companies that use the blockchain have also made the case that their services would prevent future Varsity Blues. In a blog post earlier this year, Keith Rajecki, vice president public sector for education and research for Oracle, said his company’s blockchain platform could do the job.

“Using blockchain, the college creates tamper-proof records,” he wrote. “The blockchain records are replicated on multiple servers throughout participating organizations to preserve information. Anyone authorized to access information on that blockchain (which might include, recruiters, admissions officers, or coaches) could verify whether the student’s academic and athletic achievements are legitimate.”


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