PLEASANT HILL -- Eighty-four Diablo Valley College students may have paid bribes of as much as $600 per grade during a period of three years to improve official transcripts.

Unusually widespread access to the college's grade systems enabled student workers to replace F's with A's, according to documents and e-mails obtained by the Times. More than 100 people across the three-campus Contra Costa Community College District were authorized to change DVC grades, documents show.

After a 15-month investigation, college police say they are close to turning over to Contra Costa County prosecutors evidence on hundreds of falsified grades. More than 400 grades were initially found to be suspicious.

College leaders say they think a core group of student employees concocted and ran the scam. Co-workers wondered how the students afforded trips to Las Vegas, a high-level administrator told the Times.

Following the scheme's discovery, administrators went out of their way to keep it quiet, even as they asked faculty members to check years of records for illicit grade changes.

The Times revealed the plot in January, a year after the dean of student life had e-mailed colleagues that an anonymous woman left him a phone message saying students were paying for grade changes.

About three weeks later, DVC's science dean e-mailed administrators that a student -- who feared physical harm "or worse" if discovered -- had made similar accusations. Dean Dennis Smith found two suspicious transcripts, including one on which a grade had been changed from an F to an A.

Smith called the matter "an unseemly business."

"Obviously, this is potentially a very serious issue that involves the reputation of the college," he wrote.

Documents show the changes affected grades for classes taken as early as 2003.

College police are preparing to submit the case to Contra Costa County prosecutors, who could file scores of felony charges against current and former students. Dozens of the suspects have transferred to four-year universities, which could expel or discipline them. Several schools have expressed interest in learning the names of those students.

College administrators since have removed access to grade changes from all but 11 college and district employees, said Mojdeh Mehdizadeh, the district's vice chancellor for technology.

Most colleges allow three to five employees to change grades, experts and registrars said, and students almost never have authority to alter transcripts.

"We believe it's best to have full-time employees whose allegiance is to the job," said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Allowing student access "sounds a bit too lenient."

The DVC problem developed over time, Mehdizadeh said, as managers repeatedly asked system administrators to grant access to new employees. Investigators also said student employees surreptitiously used the computers of authorized users who had stepped away from their desks.

Now, all new grade-change access must be approved by a panel of top records administrators, Mehdizadeh said, and students no longer are allowed to change grades. Employees now are required to block access to their computers when they leave.

"Sometimes something bites you and you say, 'Oh my gosh,'" she said. "We had never had this problem in our organization before."

College leaders did not disclose the cash-for-grades plot until a year after it was discovered in January 2006. In June, Contra Costa County voters narrowly approved a $286 million bond measure for the district.

The district also paid more than $3,800 for the advice of crisis-management expert Sam Singer, who told administrators in spring 2006 that they should either disclose the scandal immediately or be prepared for future questions. Board members said they were not told by administrators about Singer's advice or even his involvement.

In January, in response to a Times reporter's queries, college leaders issued a two-paragraph statement with few details.

DVC President Diane Scott-Summers this week declined to discuss whether the bond measure, which will finance construction projects across the district, played a part in the decision not to make the investigation public. District board members defended administrators' decisions and said politics had nothing to do with the handling of the scandal.

"I probably would be inclined to trust" administrators, said board member Sheila Grilli. "I don't think having someone changing grades for money and a capital-improvement bond have much in common."

Despite the tightly controlled investigation, during which administrators and police have steadfastly declined to release details, the grade changes have led to nationwide suspicion of DVC transcripts. Registrars from several schools have called DVC officials to ask about the scandal, and some have said the uncertainty about who was involved makes it difficult to trust transfer applicants.

"It kind of makes all DVC transcripts suspicious," said Bruce Purcell, Cal State East Bay's registrar.

With hundreds of students preparing to transfer after their final exams this month, the stain has embarrassed some students.

"It's kind of a slap in the face," said Min Song, a third-year student. "It's one of those things that puts a dent in what you've established."

The community college has sent letters to each student suspected in the scheme, said Scott-Summers, the DVC president. Students were given about three weeks to defend the grade changes, she said.

After the investigation is finished, DVC will send corrected transcripts to universities that accepted transfer students. At least four of the suspected participants transferred to UC Berkeley, and others went to UC San Diego and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Officials at the four-year schools said they would treat the matter seriously.

"It could result in the harshest of scenarios: expulsion from the university," said Walter Robinson, UC Berkeley's undergraduate-admissions director.

Others said they would wait for the facts before painting all DVC transfers with the same brush.

"We just have to take at face value what we receive," said Michael Beseda, the vice provost for enrollment at St. Mary's College, which accepts at least 75 DVC transfers each year.

"We're not treating DVC applicants any differently than those from any other school."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or mkrupnick@cctimes.com.

DVC grade scam

  • January 2006: DVC math dean alerts administrators to grade discrepancies. Records officials confirm changes were unauthorized.

  • Jan. 25: Bill Oye, DVC's dean of student life, e-mails administrators that an anonymous woman has said a person named Francis is accepting money in exchange for grade changes.

  • Jan. 26: Gary Fincher, admissions and records director, sends an e-mail telling colleagues that 103 people in the Contra Costa Community College district are authorized to change grades.

  • Feb. 14: Dennis Smith, science and engineering dean, e-mails administrators that a student has told him grade changes are for sale. The student is afraid of being harmed for telling, Smith writes.

  • Feb. 15: Administrators note that a student who works in the records office had 19 grade changes. Transcripts show the student is a permanent member of the Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society. The same day, administrators confront a suspect, banning him from campus.

  • March 30: The administration hires crisis-management expert Sam Singer, who advises immediate full disclosure or preparation for hard questions. A month later, they pay him $3,860.

  • June 6: Contra Costa County voters approve a $286.5 million bond measure for the college district.

  • Jan. 26, 2007: In response to a Times reporter's questions, the college district releases a two-paragraph statement on the scandal. An unreleased April 2006 draft statement has nine paragraphs.

  • Today: 15 months later, college police are preparing to discuss the case with prosecutors.