A former student who used fake grades and other application materials to gain admission to three colleges — including Cornell, where she studied for three years — said pressure from her parents had led her to deceive her family and the universities for years.
The former student, Cavya Chandra ’13, fraudulently took out more than $130,000 in federal loans in the process and pleaded guilty to federal student loan fraud in the fall.
On Monday, federal judge David E. Peebles sentenced Chandra, 26, to five years of probation and ordered her to pay Cornell more than $70,000. The judge’s ruling also requires Chandra, if she applies to any post-secondary school, to alert a probation officer and tell the school about her conviction.
Chandra’s lawyer, Kimberly M. Zimmer, said in a court filing that Chandra had “felt an enormous amount of pressure” from her parents to succeed academically.
Zimmer described Chandra’s relationship with her mother as “strained” and said Chandra “felt that her mother’s love was contingent” on her “good grades and good looks,” which led her to develop “an unhealthy need to fulfill their high expectations at any cost.”
Zimmer said in a court filing that Chandra was born in India and later moved to Australia and settled in Carmel, Indiana, where she now lives, when she was 10. Chandra’s father is a software engineer, her mother is a mortgage banker and her brother studies at Harvard University, Zimmer said.
“Ms. Chandra’s parents are very successful, and growing up, Ms. Chandra acknowledges that her belief that she needed to be someone her parents would be proud of developed into an unhealthy need to fulfill their high expectations at any cost,” Zimmer said in the court memorandum.
In a statement this week, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, Grant Jaquith, said, “Whatever pressure students feel to get into a particular school, it cannot justify fraud.”
“We maximize opportunities for higher education by maintaining the integrity of financial aid programs, including taking action against dishonesty,” Jaquith said.
When Cornell denied Chandra’s application in the fall of 2008, she applied to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh using a forged letter of recommendation and was admitted.
Then, in the spring of 2010, she applied to Cornell using a forged high school transcript, a forged Carnegie Mellon transcript and a forged letter of recommendation. The former student claimed at the time that her freshman GPA was 4.0 when it was actually 2.79, prosecutors said.
Cornell accepted Chandra based on the forged material, and she studied at Cornell for three years beginning in the fall of 2010, conducting research in the Cornell Infant Studies Laboratory, The Sun previously reported. Chandra received more than $130,000 in financial aid while at Cornell and Cornell has since repaid the debt to the Department of Education. Chandra has agreed to pay Cornell the $70,145.81 she owes.
Chandra’s fraudulent behavior was not discovered until 2013, when she used a forged Cornell transcript while applying to medical school, falsely claiming that her GPA was 4.0 when it was actually 1.98. At that point, the American Medical College Application Service alerted Cornell to the possible fraud, spurring an investigation that led to Cornell expelling Chandra in November of 2013.
It remains unclear if another student could dupe Cornell in the same way that Chandra did, as spokespeople for the University won’t say if Cornell has made any relevant changes to its admissions process since Chandra was admitted in 2010.
Spokespeople also didn’t answer questions about how many people could be attending the University based on false applications, what the investigation of Chandra’s case entailed, and how Chandra managed to successfully trick Cornell until the medical college application service alerted Cornell.
In response to the questions, a Cornell spokesman, Jeff Tyson, provided a statement from Jason Locke, vice provost for enrollment.
“We are pleased with the outcome of this criminal investigation which culminated in the defendant’s plea agreement taking responsibility for her wrongful acts,” Locke said in the provided statement. “Restitution of the financial aid she wrongfully received while at Cornell will enable deserving students to continue to receive financial support for education at Cornell.”
After being expelled from Cornell, Chandra applied to transfer to Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis — again using forged transcripts and false grades — and IUPUI admitted her, she said in the plea agreement last fall.
A spokesperson for Indiana University, Holly Vonderheit, told The Sun in the fall that the school had also employed Chandra. In her job, Chandra conducted neonatal research from March 2014 to August 2015 and the University later awarded her a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience in May 2015, which she held for more than a year until the University rescinded it on Aug. 12, 2016.
Before Indiana University rescinded her bachelor’s degree, however, Chandra had enrolled in a graduate program at the University of South Florida. A spokesperson for USF, Adam Freeman, told The Sun in the fall that Chandra had attended the school in the fall 2015 and spring 2016 semesters. She later withdrew after her bachelor’s degree was rescinded, the government said.
Chandra’s Facebook profile and a resume posted online indicate that she studied at the USF Morsani College of Medicine, The Sun previously reported. The resume also indicated that she had worked at the Herman B. Wells Center for Pediatric Research at Indiana as a research technician while studying there.
Zimmer, Chandra’s lawyer, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that Peebles, the judge, had “recognized the pressure” that Chandra had put herself under and told the former student in federal court in Syracuse that he sees her eventually accomplishing her dreams.
Michael F. Perry, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said in a court filing that, “Having come clean, finally, about her past, Chandra still plans to attend medical school at some point in the future.”