As the recent college admissions scandal is shedding light on how parents are cheating and bribing their children's way into college, schools are also focusing on how some students may be cheating their way through college. Concern is growing about a burgeoning online market that makes it easier than ever for students to buy essays written by others to turn in as their own work. And schools are trying new tools to catch it.
It's not hard to understand the temptation for students. The pressure is enormous, the stakes are high and, for some, writing at a college level is a huge leap.
"We didn't really have a format to follow, so I was kind of lost on what to do," says one college freshman, who struggled recently with an English assignment. One night, when she was feeling particularly overwhelmed, she tweeted her frustration.
"It was like, 'Someone, please help me write my essay!' " she recalls. She ended her tweet with a crying emoji. Within a few minutes, she had a half-dozen offers of help.
"I can write it for you," they tweeted back. "Send us the prompt!"
The student, who asked that her name not be used for fear of repercussions at school, chose one that asked for $10 per page, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
"For me, it was just that the work was piling up," she explains. "As soon as I finish some big assignment, I get assigned more things, more homework for math, more homework for English. Some papers have to be six or 10 pages long. ... And even though I do my best to manage, the deadlines come closer and closer, and it's just ... the pressure."
In the cat-and-mouse game of academic cheating, students these days know that if they plagiarize, they're likely to get caught by computer programs that automatically compare essays against a massive database of other writings. So now, buying an original essay can seem like a good workaround.
"Technically, I don't think it's cheating," the student says. "Because you're paying someone to write an essay, which they don't plagiarize, and they write everything on their own."
Her logic, of course, ignores the question of whether she's plagiarizing. When pressed, she begins to stammer.
"That's just a difficult question to answer," she says. "I don't know how to feel about that. It's kind of like a gray area. It's maybe on the edge, kind of?"
Besides she adds, she probably won't use all of it.
Other students justify essay buying as the only way to keep up. They figure that everyone is doing it one way or another — whether they're purchasing help online or getting it from family or friends.
"Oh yeah, collaboration at its finest," cracks Boston University freshman Grace Saathoff. While she says she would never do it herself, she's not really fazed by others doing it. She agrees with her friends that it has pretty much become socially acceptable.
"I have a friend who writes essays and sells them," says Danielle Delafuente, another Boston University freshman. "And my other friend buys them. He's just like, 'I can't handle it. I have five papers at once. I need her to do two of them, and I'll do the other three.' It's a time management thing."
The war on contract cheating
"It breaks my heart that this is where we're at," sighs Ashley Finley, senior adviser to the president for the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She says campuses are abuzz about how to curb the rise in what they call contract cheating. Obviously, students buying essays is not new, but Finley says that what used to be mostly limited to small-scale side hustles has mushroomed on the internet to become a global industry of so-called essay mills. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but research suggests that up to 16 percent of students have paid someone to do their work and that the number is rising.
"Definitely, this is really getting more and more serious," Finley says. "It's part of the brave new world for sure."
The essay mills market aggressively online, with slickly produced videos inviting students to "Get instant help with your assignment" and imploring them: "Don't lag behind," "Join the majority" and "Don't worry, be happy."
"They're very crafty," says Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California in San Diego and a board member of the International Center for Academic Integrity.
The companies are equally brazen offline — leafleting on campuses, posting flyers in toilet stalls and flying banners over Florida beaches during spring break. Companies have also been known to bait students with emails that look like they're from official college help centers. And they pay social media influencers to sing the praises of their services, and they post testimonials from people they say are happy customers.
"I hired a service to write my paper and I got a 90 on it!" gloats one. "Save your time, and have extra time to party!" advises another.
"It's very much a seduction," says Bertram Gallant. "So you can maybe see why students could get drawn into the contract cheating world."
YouTube has been cracking down on essay mills; it says it has pulled thousands of videos that violate its policies against promoting dishonest behavior.
But new videos constantly pop up, and their hard sell flies in the face of their small-print warnings that their essays should be used only as a guide, not a final product.
Several essay mills declined or didn't respond to requests to be interviewed by NPR. But one answered questions by email and offered up one of its writers to explain her role in the company, called EduBirdie.
"Yes, just like the little birdie that's there to help you in your education," explains April Short, a former grade school teacher from Australia who's now based in Philadelphia. She has been writing for a year and a half for the company, which bills itself as a "professional essay writing service for students who can't even."
Some students just want some "foundational research" to get started or a little "polish" to finish up, Short says. But the idea that many others may be taking a paper written completely by her and turning it in as their own doesn't keep her up at night.
"These kids are so time poor," she says, and they're "missing out on opportunities of travel and internships because they're studying and writing papers." Relieving students of some of that burden, she figures, allows them to become more "well-rounded."
"I don't necessarily think that being able to create an essay is going to be a defining factor in a very long career, so it's not something that bothers me," says Short. Indeed, she thinks students who hire writers are demonstrating resourcefulness and creativity. "I actually applaud students that look for options to get the job done and get it done well," she says.
"This just shows you the extent of our ability to rationalize all kinds of bad things we do," sighs Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. The rise in contract cheating is especially worrisome, he says, because when it comes to dishonest behavior, more begets more. As he puts it, it's not just about "a few bad apples."
"Instead, what we have is a lot ... of blemished apples, and we take our cues for our behavior from the social world around us," he says. "We know officially what is right and what's wrong. But really what's driving our behavior is what we see others around us doing" or, Ariely adds, what we perceive them to be doing. So even the proliferation of advertising for essays mills can have a pernicious effect, he says, by fueling the perception that "everyone's doing it."
A few nations have recently proposed or passed laws outlawing essay mills, and more than a dozen U.S. states have laws on the books against them. But prosecuting essay mills, which are often based overseas in Pakistan, Kenya and Ukraine, for example, is complicated. And most educators are loath to criminalize students' behavior.
"Yes, they're serious mistakes. They're egregious mistakes," says Cath Ellis, an associate dean and integrity officer at the University of New South Wales, where students were among the hundreds alleged to have bought essays in a massive scandal in Australia in 2014.
"But we're educational institutions," she adds. "We've got to give students the opportunity to learn from these mistakes. That's our responsibility. And that's better in our hands than in the hands of the police and the courts."
Staying one step ahead
In the war on contract cheating, some schools see new technology as their best weapon and their best shot to stay one step ahead of unscrupulous students. The company that makes the Turnitin plagiarism detection software has just upped its game with a new program called Authorship Investigate.
The software first inspects a document's metadata, like when it was created, by whom it was created and how many times it was reopened and re-edited. Turnitin's vice president for product management, Bill Loller, says sometimes it's as simple as looking at the document's name. Essay mills typically name their documents something like "Order Number 123," and students have been known to actually submit it that way. "You would be amazed at how frequently that happens," says Loller.
Using cutting-edge linguistic forensics, the software also evaluates the level of writing and its style.
"Think of it as a writing fingerprint," Loller says. The software looks at hundreds of telltale characteristics of an essay, like whether the author double spaces after a period or writes with Oxford commas or semicolons. It all gets instantly compared against a student's other work, and, Loller says, suspicions can be confirmed — or alleviated — in minutes.
"At the end of the day, you get to a really good determination on whether the student wrote what they submitted or not," he says, "and you get it really quickly."
Coventry University in the U.K. has been testing out a beta version of the software, and Irene Glendinning, the school's academic manager for student experience, agrees that the software has the potential to give schools a leg up on cheating students. After the software is officially adopted, "we'll see a spike in the number of cases we find, and we'll have a very hard few years," she says. "But then the message will get through to students that we've got the tools now to find these things out." Then, Glendinning hopes, students might consider contract cheating to be as risky as plagiarizing.
In the meantime, schools are trying to spread the word that buying essays is risky in other ways as well.
Professor Ariely says that when he posed as a student and ordered papers from several companies, much of it was "gibberish" and about a third of it was actually plagiarized.
Even worse, when he complained to the company and demanded his money back, they resorted to blackmail. Still believing him to be a student, the company threatened to tell his school he was cheating. Others say companies have also attempted to shake down students for more money, threatening to rat them out if they didn't pay up.
The lesson, Ariely says, is "buyer beware."
But ultimately, experts say, many desperate students may not be deterred by the risks — whether from shady businesses or from new technology.
Bertram Gallant, of UC San Diego, says the right way to dissuade students from buying essays is to remind them why it's wrong.
"If we engage in a technological arms race with the students, we won't win," she says. "What are we going to do when Google glasses start to look like regular glasses and a student wears them into an exam? Are we going to tell them they can't wear their glasses because we're afraid they might be sending the exam out to someone else who is sending them back the answers?"
The solution, Bertram Gallant says, has to be about "creating a culture where integrity and ethics matter" and where education is valued more than grades. Only then will students believe that cheating on essays is only cheating themselves.