On paper, Liu Cai was a model student. After moving to the United States from Beijing, he majored in biology at UCLA and volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club. A former teacher, Jose Echeverria, remembers him as “an excellent student” and a “great person” who was “easy to get along with.” Cai graduated in 2017 and landed a job at a health care technology company in Santa Monica. He appeared to be doing everything right.
So it came as a surprise when, on a Tuesday morning in March, federal authorities arrested him on suspicion of facilitating an international cheating ring. According to prosecutors, Cai, along with four current and former UCLA students and another student at Cal State Fullerton, helped at least 40 Chinese nationals obtain student visas by fraudulently taking the TOEFL, an English proficiency exam, on their behalf. Cai’s ringers would show up to testing sites with fake Chinese passports bearing their own photos but with the names of the clients. Where Cai slipped—and where investigators caught up to him—was charging 39 test registration payments to his credit card.
Any other day the UCLA bust might have made national headlines, but the news got swamped by a bigger, sexier college cheating scandal: Operation Varsity Blues. (The UCLA investigation was dubbed “Operation TOEFL Recall.”) While the UCLA case is less shocking—bribes in thousands of dollars instead of millions; Chinese high schoolers instead of Full House cast members—it represents an equally notable underbelly of American college admissions. If Varsity Blues is about the American ruling class perpetuating its privilege, the UCLA scandal reveals the extreme pressures and perverse incentives facing international students, many of them far less privileged and desperate to not screw up their shot.
It’s hard to find data on cheating that is broken down by country of origin, but a survey of 14 public universities by The Wall Street Journal found that in the 2014-15 school year, those universities reported cheating among international students at a rate five times higher than among domestic students. In 2018 a professor at UC Santa Barbara told the Los Angeles Times that Chinese students comprise 6 percent of the student body but account for a third of plagiarism cases. A 2016 study conducted by United Kingdom newspaper The Times says that students from outside the European Union were four times more likely to cheat than U.K. and European Union students.