What Are Ghost Students and How Do They Operate?

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.


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