The New College Cheating: Why Not Buy Your Degree?

Like hospital “superbugs” that grow increasingly deadly and difficult to kill, cheating by college students keeps morphing into new and more virulent forms. Notes hidden away under a shirt cuff during an exam or plagiarizing a few paragraphs to pad a paper are minor league stuff compared with the new kinds of cheating that students can engage in.

A host of websites now lure in students who are too lazy or incompetent to do their own work, promising good grades for their customers, and not just for a single assignment, but for an entire course.

For example, there is The site promises to “help” struggling students, stating: “I am sure you are here because you are wondering how will I have time to take my online class? It may be that one class such as statistics or accounting. We know some people have trouble with numbers. We get that. We are here to help. We offer an affordable solution, which includes having a tutor take your class for you.”

That is a “solution” provided that the student a) has no desire to learn anything about the subject and b) prefers running the risk of getting caught and perhaps expelled to devoting the time and effort needed to learn the material. The depressing truth is that there are many such students today.

Another site is Visitors to that site are lured in with this pitch: “Did you know that through us you can hire someone who is a trained expert to take online courses for you?” It’s as easy as ordering a pizza online: “Just tell us about your class, we’ll find the right tutor and the tutor will take it from there….”

And customers can rest assured that their “tutors” graduated from some of America’s best colleges and universities. If that’s true, it speaks poorly of the ethical grounding they received at those institutions, as well as more evidence that a degree from even a prestige school does not ensure anyone a good career.

Could these sites just be scams, however? The Internet is full of efforts designed to separate gullible people from their money. If a student were to pay, expecting delivery of a full course worth of work that looks good enough to get at least a “B,” and then discover that the “product” was lousy, he or she would have little or no recourse.

But even in such dubious endeavors as this, the free market seems to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some of the sites have survived and grown; they are evidently good enough to have satisfied a lot of customers, which means that the “tutors” are good at deceiving faculty members.

Recently, a group of professors at Western Carolina University (WCU) decided to run an experiment to find out if any of these cheat sites could produce work good enough to avoid detection by people who were looking for it.

In “Academic Dishonesty: Assessing the Threat of Cheating Companies to Online Education,” WCU professors L. Alvin Malesky Jr., John Baley, and Robert Crow set up a fake Introduction to Psychology course with fifteen students (12 undergraduates and 3 graduate students). The students knew that the course was actually a research project meant to see if the faculty members who co-taught the course could detect cheating and identify the company that did the coursework.

The faculty members independently graded the work submitted by each of the students, knowing that some of them would employ a cheating firm. Their task was to identify those students and provide evidence that would stand up in a disciplinary hearing against them.

One student provided a detailed discussion of his experience for the article and it makes fascinating reading. The conclusion of the project, however, is depressing. Cheating was not detected.

The authors write, “Of primary concern is the fact that high quality original content of the type furnished by some on-demand cheating companies is precluded from typical institutional tactics for detecting instances of academic dishonesty. As such, students’ ‘clean work’ covertly passes through plagiarism detection software and allows students to cheat their way through a course with little or no awareness on the part of the instructor.”

And remember that in this case, the instructors were trying to find cheating. In the typical college course, the instructor is at best aware of the possibility of cheating, but not sharply focused on identifying it.

Moreover, when a professor believes he has spotted a student cheating, he then has to weigh the costs of engaging in the administrative battle that is likely if he decides to give the student an “F” or pursue still more serious penalties. As the WCU experience shows, proving cheating is difficult. Fighting to uphold academic integrity can have a high cost and no doubt many professors decide that it is easier just to look the other way if they suspect cheating.

At the same time that cheating is getting more sophisticated, it seems that students are increasingly willing to engage in it. In this Chronicle of Higher Education article, author Brad Wolverton writes, “Cheating has become second nature to many students. In studies, more than two-thirds of college students say they’ve cheated on an assignment. As many as half say they’d be willing to purchase one. To them, higher education is just another transaction, less about learning than about obtaining a credential.”

That is precisely the problem. Many students just want the credential with as little reading, writing, and studying as possible. Between grade inflation (good grades for low-quality work) and cheating (good grades for no work), it’s easy to understand how it can be (as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded in their book Academically Adrift) that a high percentage of our students make no cognitive gains at all during their college years. They are not intellectually challenged, just coasting along and sometimes cheating to accumulate the necessary credits for their degrees.

Many students have only weak incentives to learn, but strong incentives to amass course credits for their degrees. Therefore, cheating will continue until such time as learning becomes their top priority. That will only happen when employers begin to assess them on the basis of demonstrated knowledge and ability, not on their paper credentials.

I wrote about that prospect more than four years ago in this article. I still think there will be a revolution in badges, certificates, and e-portfolios so that student knowledge and ability becomes the coin of the realm rather than paper credentials, but I wish that revolution would accelerate.