Three Chinese women reach US plea deals over college entrance exam scam

BOSTON (REUTERS) - Three women from China have agreed to plead guilty to cheating on entrance exams to American universities and colleges and are likely to be deported home, according to court papers.

Cheng Xiaomeng, who prosecutors said gained admission to Arizona State University through the exam scam, pleaded guilty on Wednesday (Aug 30) in federal court in Boston to conspiring to defraud the United States.

Further plea hearings over the next three weeks are set for Zhang Shikun, who was at Northeastern University in Boston, and Wang Yue, who according to prosecutors was paid to take exams for Zhang and Cheng while at Hult International Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The exam in question was the TOEFL, the English-language exam widely used to assess foreign applicants. The test is recognised by more than 9,000 colleges, universities and agencies in more than 130 countries.

While each of the women faced up to five years in prison, prosecutors have agreed to recommend that all three be sentenced to time served in exchange for their agreement to be deported.

That process got under way immediately for Cheng, who will spend two days at an immigration detention facility before flying to China on Friday. The hoodie-clad woman even brought a suitcase to court.

The 20-year-old's lawyer, Mr Paul Davenport, said in court that she had good grades while at Arizona State and will now return "to her home country of China in disgrace and more importantly to the disapproval of her father, who I've met".

Amid an increasingly affluent population, more Chinese students have been enrolling in US colleges and universities, attracted by the prospect of a prestigious American education and good jobs.

Their numbers grew by 9 per cent to 135,629 students in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the Institute of International Education.

Prosecutors said Wang, 24, earned nearly US$7,000 (S$9,500) taking the test in 2015 and 2016 for Zhang, Cheng and another Chinese woman, Huang Leyi, after they failed while previously taking the exam to meet their respective universities' minimum scores.

After they were admitted, the three were issued student visas by the US State Department. The four women were subsequently charged and arrested in May.

Assistant US Attorney Nicholas Soivilien said in court that Huang, who was admitted to Penn State University, had declined a similar plea deal. Her lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

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