Feds investigate fake applications for admission, financial aid at Utah college

Salt Lake Community College says it did not release any money to the flagged accounts.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gray skies loom over the Salt Lake Community College campus on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. The school is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice after receiving a number of fraudulent applications.

Federal investigators are looking into several fraudulent applications for admission and financial aid — including requests for student COVID-19 relief funds — received by Salt Lake Community College.

The school collected the counterfeit applications through its January deadline for the spring 2022 semester, SLCC spokesperson Peta Owens-Liston confirmed.

Admissions staff notified the U.S. Department of Education, which is now looking into the forgeries. The school would not say how many phony applications were submitted. But it appears they used real people’s stolen information to appear like actual Utah students applying to attend the college.

Owens-Liston said that admissions staff were able to recognize “some red flags” with the false applications and did not release any money. Because the investigation is ongoing, she declined to say what drew attention to the applications.

But Owens-Liston said the school has gone back to earlier applications from the fall “to make sure they were not fraudulent and found that none were.”

SLCC President Deneece Huftalin briefly mentioned the issue with the applications during a Utah System of Higher Education meeting last week.

Last summer, she noted, the school removed its $40 fee for prospective students to submit their applications. It was meant to remove a barrier for those who could not afford the cost. But Huftalin said she believes that is what created the issue.

“High school counselors loved that. They came out of the woodworks,” she said. “But it created some unintended consequences for us in terms of fraudulent applications.”

The school has since reinstated an application fee of $20, the president added, “as a barrier to bots to apply for financial aid.”

SLCC has been struggling to recruit students and maintain its enrollment since the pandemic started.

When COVID-19 hit and many people lost their jobs, the more affordable college was seen by the state as a way that some workers could easily go back to school to learn a new trade. That hasn’t exactly panned out.

The school, with tuition for in-state students at about $4,000 per year, was seeing steady increases in students enrolling before the virus. In the two years of the pandemic, though, it has lost nearly 2,300 students.

Its current headcount is about 27,000.

Owens-Liston said the school has made sure not to count any of the phony applications in its spring enrollment numbers. And it has been having students provide ID as confirmation for releasing financial aid.

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