Shining the light of truth into a dark online corner of the academic world.

GUEST COLUMN | by Derek Newton

According to a news-released survey by Turnitin, a company that empowers original thinking and can detect unoriginal and potentially plagiarized written academic content, nearly a third of all college teachers (32%) say they’ve suspected a student of passing off work that was actually done by someone else.

That just a third of teachers have had such suspicions may be a big issue because I suspect that far closer to 100% of them have had fraudulent work submitted in their classes. I feel that way because a little more than two years ago I wrote about the problem of contract (pay for work) cheating in college.

And while I focused mostly on the ease and prevalence of cheating in online settings, paying others to do academic work in on-campus settings has been pretty common too.

Will (Do Your) Work for Cash

Today, a simple Google search of the phrase “write my college essay” furnishes page after page of companies willing to do other people’s college work for cash. On February 6, the day I did it, four companies were even literally advertising the service – paying Google for ad space to sell academic fraud.

In depressing contrast to the brazenness of the problem, proposed solutions to contract cheating have been decidedly timid or absent all together. It’s such a disconnect that, at times, it can make it appear that those best positioned to curtail contract cheating – the academic institutions – just are not interested.

And with declining college enrollments spiking competition for students and tuition/loan revenue, a cynic could make a compelling case for why. And so, the lucrative practice continues mostly unacknowledged and profoundly unaddressed.

There can be zero doubt that, on contract cheating, the blind eyes or claims of futility by colleges and universities will be costly. Not only are students cheating themselves, they are cheating taxpayers.

How Costly Is This

According to 2013 testimony in Congress, taxpayers lost $187 million between 2009 and 2012 to fraudsters impersonating others in order to scam financial aid from colleges offering online classes.

But the even bigger losers are sure to be the schools themselves. Reputation-marring cheating scandals will continue and the marketplace will quickly re-calculate the value of a degree from institutions that treat cheating casually or not at all.

What can a college do? It’s pretty clear that strong “zero tolerance” policies in student conduct codes are not turning the trick. But they are not powerless.

In the type of contract cheating that’s common in online programs, cases of outright identity impersonation, adjusting the ratio of in-person, face-to-face engagements to automated, online ones would help. As would smaller cohorts and in-person video links between students and teachers – suggestions I made in 2015 and others have made before and since.

And colleges have been better in recent years at unearthing outright plagiarism. For example, more than 3,500 higher education institutions use Turnitin products, including 69 percent of the top 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges list. Although it may make you wonder about the other 31%, it’s progress.

But neither of those sufficiently address the pay-for-supposedly-original-coursework black market that’s clearly thriving. For this, though, colleges can and should do a few things.

What To Do About It

First, acknowledge the problem. Shining a light on the ubiquity of cheating in college will make it clear to students, as well as the sellers of sham content, that colleges are paying attention. These marketplaces thrive in darkness and prey on students who are counting on no one paying attention.

Institutions should also acknowledge that their professors and teachers are completely unable to address this specific type of fraud. They need help. With one company unveiling a new product that promises to detect ghostwritten contact cheating by flagging content written elsewhere in similar style, colleges should welcome the help.

And when students are caught hiring others to do their work, schools should make the discipline of these students public – very public. While there may be mitigating circumstances that can impact actual consequences, that students were caught is valuable information for the cheating ecosystem. And in some circumstances, expulsion may be inadequate. When a graduate level pay-for-schoolwork scandal broke in Australia, some colleges went as far as revoking the degrees of those implicated.

Colleges should also demonstrate their seriousness on contract cheating by dealing aggressively with contract providers. There is zero reason colleges should allow the peddlers of college work to operate and advertise so openly.

Also on February 6, the day I checked, there were ads on CraigsList in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home to the University of Alabama, selling supposedly original college writing. Some of those ads include the phone numbers of the providers. Schools could call them, identify them and make it hard for them to operate and advertise right under their noses.

Similarly, it’s difficult to believe, for example, that as much as Google invests in education and cares about their academic partnerships, they’d ignore a letter from schools asking them to block the open selling of ads to cheaters.

Word Value

Frankly, I’ve suspected for a long time that college leaders are afraid of who they’ll find is selling coursework to their students – either members of their academic family or the manifestly unqualified. Either outcome would justifiably raise serious questions about the institution’s core integrity. And it’s also understandably difficult for colleges to invest actions that could limit their applications, student progress stats or tuition income.

But none of those is a compelling reason to do nothing.

For most students, contract cheating is a risk/reward calculation, so the more schools can make it clear that they see the problem and are active in combating it, the fewer students will be tempted. When schools don’t take these steps, it can imply or appear that their concerns about academic integrity are limited to words.

And with so many college words so clearly for sale, words run the risk of losing any value whatsoever.


Derek Newton is a writer based in New York City who’s written about education for The Atlantic, Huffington Post and other publications. He attended Columbia University and served as Vice-President of the progressive think tank, The Century Foundation.