RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've heard a lot in recent weeks about the cheating that happens to get kids into college, but schools are also focusing on how students may be cheating their way through school. There's a lot of concern specifically about students who don't do their work; instead, they buy ghostwritten essays online. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's not hard to understand the temptation; the pressure is enormous, the stakes high, and for some students, college-level work is a huge leap.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I was kind of lost on what to do. And, like, even though I did my best to manage, deadlines come closer and closer, and it's just the pressure.
SMITH: This student, a college freshman, says one night, when she was feeling particularly overwhelmed, she tweeted her frustration.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: It was like, someone please help me write my essay, and within the first few minutes, it was, like, five, six replies.
SMITH: Send us the assignment; we'll write it for you, they offered. The student, who asked that her name not be used for fear of repercussions at school, picked one that cost $10 a page and breathed a sigh of relief. In the cat-and-mouse game of academic cheating, students know plagiarism will get caught by computer programs that automatically compare essays to a massive database of other writings. But to students like this one, buying an original essay seemed like a good workaround.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Technically, I don't think it's cheating because, like, you're paying someone to write an essay, which they don't plagiarize, but they write everything on their own.
SMITH: So they may not be plagiarizing, I say, but aren't you?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: That's just kind of a difficult question to answer. I don't know how to feel about it. It's kind of like a gray area.
ASHLEY FINLEY: That - it just breaks my heart to think that this is where we're at.
SMITH: Ashley Finley with the Association of American Colleges and Universities says campuses are buzzing about how to curb the rise in what they call contract cheating. Obviously, students buying essays is not new, but Finley says what used to be a small side hustle has grown through the Internet into a global industry of so-called essay mills.
FINLEY: Definitely. This is really getting more and more serious. I think it's part of the brave new world, for sure.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get instant help with your assignment.
SMITH: The essay mills market aggressively online.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Don't lag behind, join the majority.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Don't worry, be happy.
TRICIA BERTRAM GALLANT: Yeah, they - they're very crafty.
SMITH: Tricia Bertram Gallant, head of academic integrity at UC San Diego, says companies are brazen offline as well; they leaflet on campuses, post ads in toilet stalls and fly banners over Florida beaches on spring break. They also bait students with emails that look like they're from official college help centers and Bertram Gallant says they pay social media influencers to promote them.
BERTRAM GALLANT: It's very much a seduction. So you can maybe see why students could get drawn into the contract cheating world.
SMITH: YouTube has cracked down on essay mills, pulling thousands of videos that they say promote dishonest behavior. But new ones constantly pop up, and their hard sell flies in the face of their small print that essays should be used only as a guide, not as a final product.
Several essay mills declined or didn't answer our interview requests, but one called EduBirdie answered questions by email and offered up one of its writers. April Short (ph), a former teacher from Australia, says the idea that students may be turning in her work as theirs doesn't bother her.
APRIL SHORT: These kids are so time-poor, and I don't necessarily think that being able to create an essay is going to be a defining factor in a very long career. And I actually applaud students that look for options to get the job done and get it done well.
DAN ARIELY: Yeah, that's it. I mean, you know, this just shows you the extent of ability to rationalize all kinds of bad things we do.
SMITH: Duke University psychology professor Dan Ariely says the rise in contract cheating is especially worrisome because more begets more; dishonest behavior, he says, is not just about a few bad apples.
ARIELY: Instead, what we have is a lot, a lot of blemished apples, and we take the cues for our behavior from what we see people around us doing.
SMITH: To curb essay-buying, schools are starting to use new technology, just as they did to fight plagiarism.
BILL LOLLER: So the new product is called Authorship Investigate.
SMITH: Bill Loller with the company Turnitin says the new software inspects document metadata, like when it was created, by whom and how many times it was edited. Then it looks at style. Everyone has a kind of writing fingerprint, Loller says, like whether you double-space after a period or whether you use Oxford commas. By comparing that to a student's other work, Loller says, suspicions can be confirmed or alleviated in minutes.
LOLLER: At the end of the day, you get to a really good determination on whether the student wrote what they submitted or not.
SMITH: Eventually, schools hope students will get the message that buying essays is risky on many levels - some companies' essays have been horribly written and even plagiarized, and when buyers complained, some companies turned to blackmail, threatening to tell their school they were cheating.
But ultimately, experts say, fear of getting outed by shady businesses or by the latest technology may not deter students. Tricia Bertram Gallant from UC San Diego says the only right way to dissuade them from buying essays is to remind them why it's wrong.
BERTRAM GALLANT: If we engage in a technological arms race with the students, we won't win. Our solution has to be about creating a culture where integrity and ethics matter.
SMITH: And she says, only when learning is valued more than grades will students believe that cheating on essays is only cheating themselves. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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