Cheating in College–and How to End It

“Cheating Goes Global as U.S. Students Outsource College Papers”  That’s the headline from a front page story in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s a compelling, disturbing–but fundamentally flawed incomplete–story of what is called ‘Contract Cheating.’  From it we learn that a lot of American college students today cannot be bothered to do their assigned work; instead, they hire writers to produce their essays and term papers, paying as much as $42 per page.

(NOTE FROM AUTHOR: As Alan Schwarz points out, ‘fundamentally flawed’ is strong language, perhaps too strong for this post. And so I have substituted ”incomplete’ for ‘fundamentally flawed.’  My thinking was that its incomplete nature was important enough to justify ‘fundamentally flawed,’ but I respect Alan’s argument.  As noted below, the reporters tell only the ‘supply’ side of the story and neglect the equally important ‘demand’ side. They also say that Australia has solved the problem but provide no supporting details.)

The Times story is built around one Mary Mbugua, a young Kenyan woman who has earned as much as $320 a month writing papers for students, in a country where the per capita income is only $1700.  While she is conflicted about the fundamental dishonesty of her work, she needs the money,  and so she writes–to order–term papers about everything from euthanasia to whether humans should colonize space.

Ms. Mgubua is presented as a representative of many thousands of educated men and women in Africa, India, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.  How many such papers are churned out?  The Times reports: “Millions of essays ordered annually in a vast, worldwide industry that provides enough income for writers to make it a full-time job.” 

The companies that provide this service are slick.  One pitch reads, “No matter what kind of academic paper you need, it is simple and secure to hire an essay writer for a price you can afford.  Save more time for yourself.”

I ask you to consider what the company means by “time for yourself.” Beer pong?  Road trips?  Smoking weed?  Ultimate Frisbee? Personal growth?  Somehow, I don’t think they mean exploring complex issues or developing one’s mind.

Here’s my problem: The Times tells only the ‘supply‘ side of the story: who is writing these essays and why.  The reporters do not dig into the equally important ‘demand‘ aspect: who is buying these essays, and why.

Nor do the reporters address possible solutions, although they report that Australia has (somehow) solved the problem.  Because the article devotes space to a software company and its founder, it seems to be implying that solving the problem of widespread plagiarism requires technology.  That’s flat out wrong!

From my own experience covering higher education, it’s not difficult to find students who are willing to reveal their secrets.  My colleagues and I filmed on four campuses for our 2005 film, ‘Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk,’ and we had quite a few undergraduates volunteer to show us how they were cheating their way through college, and explain why. (Click here to watch the film on YouTube or buy it from PBS.)

It turns out they were cheating or coasting through because their goal was to earn a college degree, not to get a college education.  I came away believing that most students didn’t even grasp the notion of ‘a college education,’ largely because they had spent their school years on a treadmill, chasing external rewards like grades.

And we learned that most colleges and universities were more intent on improving their scores in the US News & World Report rankings than on equipping young people to navigate–and improve–a changing world.

Teaching and learning–which we naively thought were the core business of higher education–were for the most part an afterthought.

Because professors needed time to do their (all important) research, many entered into an unspoken agreement with their students: “If you don’t ask too much of me, I will give you a good grade.”  (That’s actually on tape, from a tenured professor at the University of Arizona!)  They lived by “Publish or Perish,” not “Teach or Take Off.”

If colleges want to end the moral rot of plagiarism, they can accomplish it with one broad stroke.  Here’s what needs to be done:  Make the development of the idea and the drafting of every major paper as important as the final product.

♥Insist on seeing each paper in all its stages of development

♥”What’s your idea for a paper?”

♥”How will you cover this topic?”

♥”Show me your outline.”

♥”Turn in your first draft for my comments.”

♥”Submit your second draft for comments.”

♥”Meet with me regularly to discuss your progress and obstacles.”

(All of this, along with some in-class writing, should also be standard operating procedure in high schools and middle schools.)

Plagiarism becomes impossible under these conditions, because the professors will know what the students are doing from the git-go. No more papers turned in at the last minute.

However, this approach will force professors of sociology, psychology, and history–heck, professors of every subject that is NOT English–to function as writing instructors, something that many of them will not want to do.

It will require professors to shift focus away from their chosen field and onto their students. What a concept!!

It will force students to choose what issues they want to know more about.  They will have to do research and some honest writing and rewriting.  They will be accountable for the entire process, not just a few typewritten pages turned in during the semester.

Learning to be accountable for what you do: that’s a pretty important lesson to absorb.  Sadly, plagiarists are learning a different lesson: Do whatever you have to do to get by. And they are being abetted by their professors.

This isn’t pie in the sky.  I’ve met many professors who follow these rules, and I know there are colleges that subscribe to this ideal.

To conclude, this is simple stuff, but, unfortunately, ‘simple‘ does not mean ‘easy.‘ Doing this on America’s college campuses will require genuinely hard work and a fundamental mind shift.   Unless and until higher education’s leaders recommit themselves to the vision that drew most of them into education in the first place, plagiarism will continue to flourish.

(Please post your thoughts at And thanks)


9 thoughts on “Cheating in College–and How to End It

  1. I wonder if many of your recent essays- plagiarism, condoned and enabled, falling teacher salaries, “a rising tide of mediocrity,” and “judging student achievement narrowly–-as measured by student test scores” aren’t all linked to the “missing vision” you mention in your last paragraph, but it’s a missing vision in the value of education and being well educated. The statistic of CEO salaries versus workers’ salaries that you cited in a recent essay demonstrates what we value.

    I taught a few years in public high school and a shorter time in college. I have no memory of anyone condoning plagiarism, and very, very few of my colleagues avoided the time consuming and rewarding experience of helping students to think, learn, and enjoy learning. Your recommendation, to make development of the idea and drafts of a major writing assignment as important as the final product would surely work and be wonderfully educational! It would require a commitment by both student and teacher. Are there still enough teachers and professors and students who value education more than their free time for whatever, and are there educational institutions that value teaching more than football and status (the reason for most research and most testing). I think so. Do enough academics still have the vision that education, especially what we used to esteem as a liberal arts education, is important in itself and not just as a means to an end? I don’t know.

    Higher education seems to have problems I couldn’t have imagined a few decades ago- teaching narrowly to the test (which itself is a sort of cheating), academics who oppose academic freedom, educational institutions that value profit and status over education, students who pay the large sums for their plagiarized papers because they are funded by mommy and daddy (or elsewhere) and have no skin in the game, and don’t value education.
    Is this the well educated and informed me talking or just the old fogey? Ha! I wish I knew.

    Doug Allen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi John — you know I’m your biggest fan. It’s because of this that I’m concerned with your describing the Times story as “fundamentally flawed”.

    The phrase “fundamentally flawed” (more than) suggests that the article — or scientific study, on which the epithet is also often deployed — is wrong from the ground up, fundamentally, and whose conclusions are therefore incorrect or untrustworthy. That was not the case here by any means. The author did not go in some directions you would have preferred (the students buying this service, and solutions), but that is not a fundamental flaw. It does not invalidate everything else. This was still a very valuable story; the absence of *additional* valuable material does not change that.

    I will admit that I am sensitive to the “fundamentally flawed” phrase and its cousins — another doozy is calling a statistical sample “biased” — because of my own experience with them at the Times, reporting on controversial topics like sports concussions and child psychiatry. While I’m certain your intentions were different, people often sneer “flawed” and “biased” not because the material was significantly flawed or biased, but because it simply didn’t appear in the form, with the context, or amid other material they think would have been better. Or, all too often, just because it conflicts with their worldview or agenda. Again you’re a good guy, the consummate professional, and you surely did not mean how it came off. But I felt the need to stick up for my old Times folks. I speak from experience that there are few worse feelings in journalism than to see your good, thoughtful work simply dismissed from the outset — “nothing to see here, folks, move along” — when you took great care to accurately and fairly present something for the public good.

    When you get right down to it, *every* piece of journalism or statistical study is to some degree flawed or biased, at least in some people’s minds. The question is to what degree — and then, more subtly, the corresponding flaws or biases of the beholder. My college friend Randall Lane, who now runs Forbes, once told me that every story should piss everyone off at least a little. High-profile journalism is a hard life, I don’t have to tell you.

    My ultimate point here is that “fundamentally flawed” and “biased” have become far more dangerous words than many people realize. They are darts that pierce through everything, intelligent dissent included. They close minds rather than open them. We must use them carefully, all of us.

    Your Admirer,
    –Alan Schwarz


  3. It used to be that success was a life, well lived (humanity, sense of community, purpose, ). Now success is seen as a well lived life (things…big houses, expensive cars, boats, expensive vacations). A well lived life requires free time and lots of money and that means cheating the system, screwing your neighbor and doing whatever it takes to die with the most things…..GREED. Why should it be any different in education? Lots of our children are trained to cheat from the very beginning (parents, coaches, teachers) and we expect them to have any morals when they embark on adulthood? We have a very sick society that is fueled by free market ideals/capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is no one solution to this, of course, but we all can do better. We don’t have to be perfect today, just better than we were yesterday.
      Higher Education can make a difference. Would that some college presidents would take a stand on this!


      • Here’s what needs to be done: Make the development of the idea and the drafting of every major paper as important as the final product.

        ABSOLUTELY. Prof Gilbert Flanz was my professor at NYU for several courses. He REQUIRED students to meet with him and discuss the topic, ideas for the bibliography. You had to bring your own bibliography and he would make suggestions and we would use the Morgan Library, NYC public library and the NYU library as places we would do research. He wouldn’t ACCEPT any last-minute “mercenary” miracle papers. Period. And we had comprehensive final exams as well (ALL ESSAY no multiple choice). Of course, lazy students stayed away from Prof. Flanz But those who stayed with him went on to Law school or to have successful academic careers. My own career has been modest but I graded AP exams for over 20 years as an AP reader and was certified in Spanish, English and Social Studies. I also have read galleys for well-known authors like Andrew Roberts (CHURCHILL WALKING WITH DESTINY). Roberts knows I did not cheat on my college papers and in fact, I continue to learn and read. I read two hours every day before school WSJ and one book. Of course in the Summer I read more but I have a lot of school work M-F. I correct all my exams by hand. No multiple choice. I really get to know my students.

        Liked by 1 person

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