Bot attacks compound enrollment data problems at California Community Colleges

September 7, 2021

Los Angeles City College

Data problems are not new to California Community Colleges.

Over the last five months, the system’s central office has been unable to provide student enrollment totals for the fall 2020 or spring 2021 terms. The system website designed to provide the enrollment of the 115 local community colleges across the state has carried a red-lettered warning for months: Don’t trust the numbers. “Research or reporting using this data for terms starting with Spring 2020 is not currently supported and is not recommended.”

And now there are the bots.

News last week that alleged scammers have besieged the system with phony student applications in attempts to score student aid and federal pandemic relief grants put a spotlight on the system’s lingering data problems and its inability to count how many people are attending the nation’s biggest higher education system, which has historically served some 2 million students.

The double problem of an inability to know how many students are taking classes and the sudden invasion of scammers is “quite striking,” said professor Thomas Dee of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, and needs prompt fixing.

“We live in an era where we rightfully expect organizations of all kinds to collect and utilize accurate data in their operations,” said Dee, a quantitative analyst. Especially, he added, educational institutions need accurate data to make sound policy and funding decisions. Enrollment figures are crucial because most of the state funding that goes to community colleges is based on the number of students at a given school, in addition to funding formulas tied to student success.


The community college system was recently alerted by Patrick Perry, director of policy, research and data with the California Student Aid Commission, that bots had filed 65,000 fake applications in 105 of the system’s 115 in-person colleges. The applications were from first-time students to a California community college, older than 30, earning less than $40,000 annually and seeking a two-year degree.

“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?’” Perry told the Los Angeles Times.

The fake students enrolled for spring and summer classes by exploiting a porous online application portal that allows applicants to decline to enter a social security number or home address. Across the system, professors went on social media to complain of finding surprisingly higher numbers of students enrolled in their classes while actual students lamented being shut out of courses that had reached capacity.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General late Thursday confirmed it was investigating the bot outbreak in California along with a law enforcement agency it did not identify and had alerted thousands of colleges nationwide to the potential scam.

The system has since tightened up its online portals, but officials acknowledge that they have been unable to thwart the intruders. “We don’t yet know how many colleges have been affected,” Paul Feist, the college system’s deputy chancellor of communications and marketing, told EdSource late Thursday.

Feist said anti-bot software installed in July estimates that 20% of the traffic to the application portal is malicious and the filter is stopping 15% of it.

“The limitations of our current technology infrastructure do not provide real-time access to campus-level data, including enrollment or suspected fraud,” Feist added.

It is unknown whether any of the fake students successfully received financial aid or any of the emergency Covid relief grants that the colleges were automatically sending out to enrolled students since last year as part of their $1.6 billion federal allocation.  (California is getting the most aid of any state — $9.5 billion, with about $4 billion allotted to community colleges.)

About $270 million was distributed through the end of 2020 to more than 439,000 California community college students, including more than 56,000 who dropped out after receiving the grants, an EdSource analysis of the most recent federal data found. It is not known if any were fake students or how many students normally drop out.

Feist said he declined “to speculate” on whether any of the students who received the aid and dropped out were actually profiles created by bots.

“A lot of our students continue to face pandemic challenges that make it difficult or impossible for them to attend college, while others may leave to take jobs as parts of the economy improve,” he said.

Enrollment data comes down

In response to questions, Feist said the ability of fake students to enroll “is not really related” to the system’s other problems that led to the decision earlier this year to red-flag the enrollment data.

In April, EdSource reported a severe drop in statewide community college headcount — the raw number of people taking classes. Within a month, the college system removed its enrollment and headcount data from the website. Different fall 2020 and spring 2021 data were restored to the site by July, but with the red-letter warning that the numbers, which are part of the system’s “data mart,” should not be relied upon.

Feist, said “one of data mart’s main issues is its inability to count students who started but did not finish independent study work in the same manner in which students taking in-person classes are counted during the pandemic.” That’s because of different teaching methods that professors have adopted during Covid, he said.

Counting students taking non-credit courses has also been a challenge, Feist said, because some of them switched to asynchronous online delivery when Covid hit.

“Even before this pandemic-era problem, we still didn’t have real-time enrollment reporting,” he said. “With our current system, we have to wait until after the semester ends for colleges to report their final enrollment counts. It’s loaded up and double-checked. The whole process leads to a frustrating lag time.”

Enrollment dictates funding

In a May 17 response to a public records request from EdSource, a lawyer for the system said it had no enrollment data for the fall 2020 term that ended five months earlier, or the spring 2021 term. “The Chancellor’s Office has determined that we have no records that are responsive to your request,” the lawyer wrote.

During the pandemic colleges have been allowed to use enrollment numbers from previous years in their funding formulas. That’s because of state regulations that allow the colleges to use alternative years of enrollment data in “extraordinary cases,” said Paul Steenhausen, a fiscal and policy analyst with the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The community college system has chosen to do that in order to prevent colleges from having their funding reduced because of pandemic related enrollment declines.

In May, the system notified the colleges that those protections were being extended into the 2021-22 fiscal year. “The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting workforce disruption continue to challenge the California Community Colleges in 2021-22. During this crisis, providing fiscal stability is a top priority,” Lizette Navarette, vice chancellor of finance for the system, wrote in a memo to the colleges.

Showered with money

Tatiana Melguizo, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education who studies community colleges, said it’s “critical” that the system sort out its enrollment data issues.

Melguizo said it’s important not just because state funding for the colleges is tied to enrollment, but also because California’s community colleges would be “showered with money” under President Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan.

Biden’s plan calls for spending $109 billion for two years of tuition-free community college and $62 billion to invest in strategies to increase the numbers of students who return and earn degrees or certificates.

If the plan goes through, California’s community colleges will need to have accurate enrollment figures so that they know how to best spend the money to help their students, Melguizo said.

Colleges will need to use the funding to design new programs to improve student success, she added. To ensure those programs are designed to fit their students’ needs, the colleges will need accurate data on things like the number of older students who are enrolled and the number of students who are attending college for the first time, Melguizo said.

“In a very short amount of time, the colleges are going to have to think about what new initiatives they’re going to come up with,” she said. “Not getting those numbers right is really problematic.”

Stanford’s Dee said that despite the problems, the system should not overreact to either of them. Community colleges, he said, are critically important to the state’s economy and the ability of people to improve their lives.

At the same time, better safeguards are needed to stop scams. “Educational disruption” because of bad numbers and fraud shouldn’t happen, he said.

“We have to be careful not to overreach,” Dee said. “We need to use grace when detecting the fraud so we don’t overcorrect and shut out students.”

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