The number of Chinese students on American campuses has increased by 139 percent in the last five years, and admissions officers are struggling to keep up with demand. Confronted with tales of widespread fraud, higher education's gatekeepers describe difficulties in getting accurate portraits of who their Chinese applicants are - and how well they speak English.
Where there's a niche, a vendor is never far behind. Colleges are increasingly turning to companies that provide video interviews of Chinese applicants and promise, in various ways, to help with vetting and verification. Some vendors score applicants' interviews and writing samples, while others merely act as a secure conduit, passing a videotaped interview along to the admissions office. Most are for-profit, though there is one non-profit player in the mix.
"It's filling a hole," said Kevin Ferrone, a manager of programme development at CIEE: Council on International Educational Exchange, a non-profit based in the state of Maine that offers an interviewing service for Chinese applicants to US colleges. "There is a lot of fraud coming out of China, and admissions folks here deal with a lot of questions around Chinese applicants and their English-language ability," he said.
"CIEE helps to address this issue through an interview," Mr Ferrone said. "We interview applicants face-to-face and then we evaluate them based on a rubric we created. We send to the school in the US a comprehensive report that includes a streaming video of the interview, an evaluation of that interview, and a writing sample, and we cross-reference our scores with the applicants' TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores, to see how they correlate and if there are any outliers that schools might like to take a closer look at."
"It's filling a need for additional, concrete, reliable information about applicants from China," Mr Ferrone said.
Other players in the market include InitialView, a three-year-old company that boasts nine partner colleges in the US and France, and Vericant. The latter began by partnering with US boarding schools but is expanding into the higher education market. Both CIEE and InitialView charge the applicant: CIEE charges 1,985 yuan (about £200), for the score report with the writing sample and the video interview, while InitialView's un-scored interview is priced at $95 (£60). For Vericant, member institutions pay a flat fee allowing them to refer an unlimited number of applicants, and students also pay a one-time interviewing fee of 2,499 yuan.
In addition, a startup set to launch this spring, International Skill Verification Services, plans to assess students' English language abilities during the interview and counts two applied linguists - Nathan Carr, of California State University at Fullerton, and Alan Urmston, of Hong Kong Polytechnic University - as advisers.
"Ironically, where fraud is rampant there are sometimes opportunities for those who can present a credible and transparent alternative," said Terry Crawford, a former lawyer and the CEO of InitialView. Crawford stressed that his company's video interviews provide opportunities for students who are going about the admissions process the right way to showcase their abilities. The company's website urges applicants to "Stand out from a faceless crowd".
Interviewing, of course, is not new, and many institutions are already interviewing international applicants on their own - either by working with alumni interviewers or using their own admissions staff to schedule appointments via Skype.
Admissions professionals at colleges that are using what could be described as "interview 2.0" services cite a variety of motivations, chief among them the desire to get a stronger sense of applicants' personalities and whether or not they would be good "fits" for the institution. This can be particularly helpful in a Chinese context, where there are concerns about the degree to which agents have their hands in forging applicants' letters of recommendation and essays. (Details on the scope of fraud are largely anecdotal, but a survey of 250 Chinese high school students conducted by Zinch China found that 90 percent of letters of recommendation are fake, 70 percent of essays are written by someone other than the applicant, and 50 percent of transcripts are falsified.)
"We feel that these interviews will give us a chance to see a more three-dimensional picture of students, give us a better sense of their personality and a better sense of their command of conversational English," said Daniel Lugo, vice-president and dean of admission and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College, which began recommending that its Chinese applicants undergo interviews with InitialView this autumn.
"In our holistic review process, we need to have as many tools as we can to distinguish between the strongest students. This is another one of those tools," Mr Lugo said.
Grant M. Gosselin, vice-president of enrolment and dean of admissions at Babson College, another InitialView partner, said he hopes the interviews will be useful in providing an additional source of information at times when there is a mismatch in a student's file - when, for example, admissions officers flag students who did well on standardised tests but have lower-quality essays than might therefore be expected. "We've talked in the past about wishing we had opportunities to interview some of those candidates we were offering admission to, just to make sure their language abilities were strong enough to be competitive at Babson," he said.
The University of Denver is requiring the CIEE interview of all Chinese applicants this autumn as an additional check on their language abilities. "What led us to this is that two years ago, we noticed increasing numbers of new international students with adequate TOEFL scores who were struggling in the classroom and, in some extreme cases, failing," said Marjorie Smith, an associate dean and director of the Office of International Student Admission.
"So we decided we were going to retest every non-native English speaker at orientation," she said. Students who scored poorly on the in-house assessment would be rerouted into an intensive English program before beginning credit-bearing coursework.
"This fall when we tested about 120 students, 23 of them - who were fully admitted based on their TOEFL or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score - were found to be so lacking in their English skills that they had to go into intensive English. That was a very difficult number: we were not expecting that many students to essentially fail the test." All 23 students who failed were Chinese. Upon investigation, Ms Smith discovered that 18 of the students had speaking or listening scores on the TOEFL that should have been red flags: although Denver requires an overall minimum score of 80, the university doesn't require that students meet minimum sub-scores on each of the four sections of the test (speaking, listening, reading and writing), and is now considering adding such a requirement. The other five of these students had TOEFL scores significantly higher than Denver's in-house assessment could confirm.
The major English language tests assess English speaking proficiency in different ways. IELTS markets itself as being the only high-stakes English language proficiency test with a live interview. The 11-14 minute interview is meant to "approximate a conversation," and is scored by the interviewer on-site, according to Zachary Johnson, the CEO of IELTS USA. IELTS publishes descriptors of what each "band score" indicates, and also posts videos of "exemplar" candidates who have received each of the possible speaking scores. Mr Johnson said that especially given the fact that the speaking portion of IELTS is conversational in nature, the test scores and interpretive guidance provide colleges with a "clear and comprehensive" - and sufficient - source of information as to whether a given student has the English language ability to succeed in the classroom.
Not surprisingly, officials at TOEFL and Pearson - which administers the Pearson Test of English Language (PTE) Academic - also say their test offers sufficient information as far as assessing English language ability goes. Both, however, reject a conversational speaking assessment scored at the testing center as comparatively less objective. In both TOEFL and PTE Academic, the test-taker speaks into a computer and proficiency is assessed off-site. Pearson also sends college admissions offices a short audio sample of the applicant speaking. However, Carl Rhymer, the global sales director, said the company suggests that colleges shouldn't use the sample to make admissions decisions, but rather to get a flavor of the applicant.
"Having as much information as possible about an applicant is good for everyone," said Eileen Tyson, executive director of global client relations for TOEFL. "It's good for the institution to make sure that the student really has the qualifications and is the right fit for the institution, and it's good for the applicant because the student wants to make sure they're a good fit as well." Ms Tyson believes that video interviewing of applicants will continue to grow in popularity - "and that's a good thing." (The Educational Testing Service, which administers TOEFL, also runs a video interviewing platform, called LikeLive.)
She doubted, however, that any attempt to score applicants' English language abilities during interviews would prove useful. "It's very difficult to make a test of the quality that would be needed for making admissions decisions," she said. "ETS spent more than $2 million last year on research related to TOEFL."