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When I was in high school, I cheated pretty regularly. And I mean all the time. I remember writing chemistry formulas on small bits of paper that I then sealed to the bottom of my dress shoes with transparent tape. When I crossed my legs, the information I needed was literally in my lap.
That was before education went online. Cheating, it seems, has gone with it. Today, entrepreneurs and freelancers openly advertise services designed to help students cheat their online educations. These digital cheaters for hire will even assume students’ identities and take entire online classes in their place.
I reached out to one of these companies—the aptly named No Need to Study —asking, for the sake of journalism, if it could take an online English Literature class at Columbia University for me. I got an email response from someone on its customer-relations staff who told me that, not only could the company get a ringer to take my online class, it could also guarantee I’d earn a B or better. I was told the fee for such an arrangement was $1,225.15.
That extra fifteen cents made it seem official.
When I asked for more information to be absolutely sure I understood the company’s services, the reply was crystal clear: “We offer the services of a pool of experienced academic tutors to take classes and complete course work for our clients.”
No Need to Study even has handy reference videos that ostensibly show satisfied clients sharing how easy it was to pay someone else to take their online classes. My favorite is a video from a client named Muhammad who explains that he hired the company to complete his math lab courses for him. He’d taken these classes before, he notes, but “the quizzes were just way to difficult” so he searched for a solution. “They got it done, and they did really, really well,” he continues. “They absolutely killed my final math and app classes with a 90 percent, and I can definitely tell you I never got a 90 percent before on anything.”
There’s no way to directly link the growth of online-education options to an increase in online cheating. But more online classes means more online students, which means more potential customers for cheating providers. According to the 2014 Online Learning Survey, roughly a third of all higher-education enrollments in the U.S. are now online—with almost 7 million students taking at least one online class. Other statistics put the number a bit lower, at a fourth of the overall student populations. Either way, that’s millions of potential customers for ambitious providers of cheating services.
Online education is already poised to be a $100 billion global industry. But it could be even bigger if online degrees earn more clout, especially with employers. If online degrees and certifications achieve the same stature as traditional, on-campus ones, an online education marketplace could transform higher education and change the very meaning of going to college. That’s exactly what some some online education advocates want. Kevin Carey, a well-known online-education supporter, wrote about the quest for online education credibility in March in a New York Times op-ed titled, “Here’s What Will Truly Change Higher Education: Online Degrees That Are Seen as Official.”
If a goal of online education proponents is to convince the public and employers that an online education is as official and prestigious as a traditional one earned in brick-and-mortar and Ivy classrooms, it’s hard to imagine anything more damaging than identity-fraud schemes in which students literally pay for grades but do no work whatsoever. At least with a traditional degree, the assumption is the recipient actually went to class personally.
Even so, the growth in online-degree credibility is already happening as more and more colleges move classes and degree programs online. Arizona State University offers a complete bachelor’s degree in a variety of majors—entirely online. Others schools, such as SUNY Empire State, do too. At the University of Florida, students can take their underclass core classes—which account for about half their undergraduate degree requirements—virtually. And the University of Central Florida has been posting many of the lectures for its popular courses to the web so students can “attend” classes virtually, a reality that prompted one UCF student to tweet, “Thanks, UCF, for having lecture-capture courses so I don’t have to go to class ever.” These degrees are, in theory, credible, even if they were “earned” online.