Feb 15 2024

What Are Ghost Students, and How Do They Operate?

The spooky-sounding phenomenon can harm student applicants, needlessly burden university employees and lead to financial aid theft.

The looming enrollment cliff and a slow recovery from pandemic-related enrollment dips have left higher education institutions across the country looking for ways to boost interest and applications from potential students.

But not every bump in applications is a positive sign. In fact, the ease with which prospective students can now apply to college — and be accepted — is one of the factors behind a disturbing trend: the rise in so-called ghost students. These are scammers who misrepresent themselves as actual applicants but who are instead in search of fraudulent credentials; their enrollment can lead to myriad consequences if institutions don’t flush them out of their system quickly enough.

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Who Are Ghost Students, and What Do They Want?

Ghost students, as their name implies, aren’t real people. They are aliases or stolen identities used by scammers and the bots they deploy to get accepted to a college, but not for the purpose of attending classes or earning a degree.

A ghost student is created when a fraudster completes an online application to a college or university and then, once accepted, enrolls in classes. At that point, the fraudster behind the ghost student can use the fake identity to act like a regular student. He or she can access and abuse cloud storage provided by the institution, or use a college-provided VPN or .edu email address to perpetrate other scams. In the most serious cases, a ghost student’s new enrollment status may be used to apply for and receive thousands of dollars in financial aid.

It’s become easier to pull off this fraud since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to online learning because students no longer have to appear in person on campus to enroll. Community colleges are particularly at risk for ghost students because of their simpler application processes, lower admission standards and preponderance of online course offerings.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported last July that a staggering 20 percent of community college applications in California in the previous year — about 460,000 —were fraudulent. California community colleges, the Chronicle notes, are required to accept any student applicant with a high school diploma and do not require students to enter a Social Security number, making those colleges particularly susceptible to ghost student scams. Also, some community colleges do not require application fees.

In one case brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2023, three women were accused of running a ghost student scam that used the identities of prison inmates and others to enroll in a California community college. They allegedly received nearly $1 million in federal student loans.


The percentage of California community college applications from July 2022 to June 2023 that were fraudulent, about 460,000 in total

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, “Thousands of ‘ghost students’ are applying to California colleges to steal financial aid. Here’s how,” June 4, 2023

What Harm Do Ghost Students Cause Colleges and Real Students?

For institutions subject to these scams, the consequences can range from annoying to expensive. Ghost students can disrupt operations on campus by taking spots from actual qualified students who have applied or by forcing institutions to add sections for courses with high interest, only to see those seats sit empty. And once colleges are aware of the problem, the process of closely scrutinizing applications and monitoring students’ behavior once enrolled can cost an enormous amount of time and effort for admissions officials, faculty members, IT teams and others.

In one case, the Chronicle reported, enrollment at California’s Pierce College dropped by almost 36 percent — from 7,658 students to 4,937 — after ghost students were purged from the rolls.

If ghost students are able to receive financial aid, typically via federal Pell grants, that money is not only stolen from taxpayers but also no longer available to legitimate applicants.

The increased work for university admissions offices and IT teams comes at a particularly challenging time, as higher education institutions continue to deal with staff shortages exacerbated by the surge in resignations that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

If ghost students receive email addresses and access to cloud platforms such as Google Workspace for Education, they can wreak havoc on data centers, which that have become more controlled in recent years as companies, including Google and Microsoft, have imposed storage limits on educational institutions.

Beyond that, any scammer who is granted access to an institution’s network or given a university-hosted email address immediately becomes a security risk. Colleges and universities are prime targets for cybercriminals; the more ghost accounts that exist on a higher ed network, the more ways cyber criminals have to penetrate institutional defenses.

LEARN MORE: The technology solutions that help colleges protect themselves from scams.

How Can Higher Ed Institutions Protect Against Ghost Students?

Making the application process more rigorous is the most direct way to limit the presence of ghost students. But for many institutions, especially two-year colleges, that approach is antithetical to the college’s mission and desire to offer easier access to higher education. In addition, with enrollment still a major concern for all types of institutions, anything that limits the pool of potential students is a nonstarter.

If a college’s goal is to keep the application process simple for students and open to all, there are steps institutions can take to keep ghost applicants and ghost students from clogging their rosters.

One way is to invest in layered identity management and cybersecurity software, including multifactor authentication, biometrics and other types identity verification tools. These include platforms that could require visual verification of a student during the application process via the camera on the student’s device. Other tools verify identity by asking for personally identifiable information, such as a Social Security number, which is typically harder to obtain illegally.

But even with those defenses in place, some ghost students could make it through. To guard against that, universities should consider policies to keep their networks secure. That might include not handing out a campus email address or network access until students physically verify their identity, even if they will only attend courses online. Schools could also drop students from online courses immediately if they don’t show up for the first day of class.

DaveLongMedia/Getty Images

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