Technology’s Part In University Cheating

In the aftermath of the college cheating scandal involving actor Felicity Huffman, sentenced to 14 days in prison for having paid $15,000 to manipulate her daughter’s SAT scores, universities around the US are rethinking how they do admissions. The first of 33 parents sentenced for having been ensnared in college tutor Rick Singer’s $25 million scheme to help wealthy parents’s children access elite universities through fraudulent sports placements and SAT scores. But part of the equation missing from this star-studded scandal is the more common component of college cheating that is far more frequent and accessible to many more parents and students: that of essay cheating that is readily facilitated through new technology.

In fact, while the media has been focussing on the elite cheating scandals that have involved the 1%, online essay mills have gone virtually un-critiqued even though this is a the far more common problem as any university professor will contend. In fact, recent studies show that approximately 16 percent of college students have paid someone to write their papers for them and many of those writing papers for students are coming in the form of online essay mills. Unlike the US which has been slow to crack down on these online companies, independent bodies in other countries have been revising their standards and taking actions such as the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK which published guidance for higher education providers on how to address the problem of contract cheating in 2017. In fact, the QAA has also sent letters to the major search engines and PayPal asking them to stop participating in these fraudulent practices by serving as platforms for people to access and pay essay mills. There has even been talk of fining or giving criminal records to students who use these platforms in the UK with Australia taking actual steps towards the criminalization of these acts.

While many consider the use of online essay mills a violation of criminal law such as the Fraud Act (2006) in the UK, it is highly unlikely that technological access to online cheating platforms will be fully criminalized much less controlled. And the reasons for this are multiple beginning with the harsh reality that online educational services run the gamut from college test tutorials for undergraduate studies to online GMAT preparation such that there are many legitimate educational businesses operating online. To control each and every business would be a massive undertaking requiring oversight and committees enabled with the power of determining which businesses are legitimate and which are not. At that, bigger questions are being asked of the way universities assess students for entry into their programs at all levels with many rethinking the use of standardized exams with the University of California system currently debating the requirement of SAT scores.

But let’s face it, universities are elite institutions established upon the premise of a certain education that largely the wealthy can access due to the requirements that leave many students from poorer school districts out in the cold. If anything needs to change immediately, it is certainly not the oversight of cheating one’s way into Ivy League institutions, but rather the problem of legacy admissions and the prohibitive tuition rates that keep most poor students outside higher education. 

The reality is that technology can be used to positively help poorer students access university if only the microscope of criticism would shift towards how universities are funded and admissions evaluated instead of celebrities buying their children’s access to universities that were always within their economic reach. In a country like the US where the poorest take out student loans for which they will be indebted most of their lives, we need to shift the conversation entirely. If not advocating for free higher education, then at the very least we need to implement technology to assist those who cannot afford higher education instead of helping those who can cheat their way through the system. The core issue to higher education isn’t really about getting into the Ivy League for most students—it’s about getting into any university without spending one’s life as an indentured worker paying back to the very system which allows the 1 percent a whole host of opportunities and economic advantages that the rest simply can never imagine.