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Just issue a diploma already

The most depressing text of the week arrived in a link a commenter provided to the post, “Would you buy a used term paper from these people?” It was to an article, “The Shadow Scholar,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education by a man who makes $66,000 a year writing term papers and theses on order for university students. That’s his half of the take, split with the online service that engages him and steers the customers to him.

His clients can be classified in three main categories: absolutely hopeless students who are simply unqualified for university-level work, foreign students whose ESL classes have not made them sufficiently fluent in English, and the lazy rich who are accustomed to having other people do the heavy lifting for them.*

So at the start we have evidence of widespread acceptance of cheating to get undergraduate and graduate degrees—he finds that seminarians are particularly pleasant, though he is dubious about their ethical guidance.**

But there is more. He doesn’t go to the library to swot up subjects of which he has no knowledge. A page or two from a Google search gives him some quotes and jargon, and his ability to inflate sentences with meaningless words—he can turn four words into forty without breaking a sweat—carries him the rest of the way.

Let’s ponder the interconnected elements of the Higher Learning described in this article. We have (a) unqualified students willing to cheat to acquire (earn seems wrong here) degrees, (b) submitting superficial and largely vacuous texts, (c) which are approved by instructors who are unaware that they are being had or who are merely willing to process these cattle through the yards.

At the root, I think, is a culture that values credentials more than education. Anyone who does not have an undergraduate degree is automatically assumed to be ignorant and unqualified for serious work, while anyone who does possess the diploma, not matter how palpable a dolt, will get consideration.

My solution, admittedly a partial and imperfect one, is the traditional democratic remedy of Giving the People What They Want.

I propose that we issue every infant a bachelor’s degree along with the birth certificate.*** Then the colleges and universities could convert their athletic programs into commercial enterprises, the returns of which would underwrite scaled-down academic programs for that minority who actually want to be educated and who are, at a minimum, necessary to keep the nation operational. Gaudeamus igitur.


*Before we go on, let me forestall remarks about how much better things were in the old days when we had Standards. It has always been the case that even the prestige colleges and universities catered to the lazy rich—you may recall the phrases “gentleman’s C” and “legacy student”—as they learned how to hold their liquor and locate a spouse of the appropriate class. And if you like (but you won’t), I can quote at length from H.L. Mencken’s mordant remarks about the intelligence of professoriate of the past century.

**Speaking as someone in the pew for nearly five decades of sermons, I have to ask: If the reverend clergy are plagiarizing, why in the name of God are they not stealing higher-grade stuff?

***Not that I’m proposing some disgusting librul classless society. Ivy League bachelor’s degrees would be available for well-off parents to purchase as an upgrade.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:45 PM | | Comments (12)


A silent partner in all this are the institutions themselves, who really don't have a lot of incentive to be flunking (or expelling) students. It seems that once a scholar has passed the stringent entrance qualifications for an institution, the institution does what it can to squirt the student through to the finish line/diploma-suitable-for-framing.

That would be one, albeit cynical, view of all this.

A silent partner in all this are the institutions themselves, who really don't have a lot of incentive to be flunking (or expelling) students. It seems that once a scholar has passed the stringent entrance qualifications for an institution, the institution does what it can to squirt the student through to the finish line/diploma-suitable-for-framing.

That would be one, albeit cynical, view of all this.

Do we really know that the colleges are accepting these? I mean, is the student who buys a term paper going to do the research to find out if the company churning them out has a good success rate? Seems to me if you're catering to the lazy and ignorant who have enough money laying around to buy term papers, even after paying today's college tuition rates, you probably don't have to show them how many professors actually accept those papers.

From "The Shadow Scholar":

"You know what's never happened? I've never had a client complain that he'd been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken. As far as I know, not one of my customers has ever been caught."

One look at academic papers should be enough to see that the prose in these things is nearly incomprehensible. Even in my own field of technical writing, the society's journal is full of some of the worst examples of academic writing I've ever seen.

It doesn't surprise me that papers full of it and little content get a passing grade.

I agree with Mike. As one who works in a public university myself, I see many students who are coached/coaxed/pushed through that really would be better off finding a job in a field they are passionate about, rather than spending time/money either a) doing as little as possible to graduate or b) struggling to keep up with peers and university requirements.
But universities need money to run and so it doesn't help them much to expel the students who are willing to cheat to stay.

One problem with Giving the People What They Want is that it dilutes the value of whatever is being given away. It used to be that a high school diploma meant at least a little something. Now it means nothing. Soon a bachelor's degree will mean nothing. That means another 4 years of a young person's life before they get to the degree that really means something academically: a master's. What a waste of time, effort, and money. How about we start in the second half of high school to separate the academicians from the rest. The rest can learn to do something they like that pays well (auto mechanics and plumbers, for example, may not care to analyze Shakespeare, but they can still make a comfortable living). The academically inclined could then go to college and get a bachelor's degree that they worked hard for and which proves they have mastered some subject matter to a meaningful degree.

The idea of "credentials more than education" is the lesson to be drawn from this lecture.

The root problem is two fold: As the value and meaning of HS diploma became diluted when ever more students were retained on the rolls because the industrial and trades jobs they used to do disappeared, ever more jobs that were once more than adequately accomplished by the "mere" HS grad became no longer available to one.

Aside from the rather poor performance of most public HS grads in general since all this began to transpire, and really because of it... those same employers believed they were being "smart" by going with the BA or BS instead. BS indeed.

Do we have the nerve and will to restore the value of a public HS diploma? And do we have the nerve needed to deal responsibly and proactively on behalf of the (far larger than is comfortable to admit) number of students a public school system is simply inadequate to provide for?

Perhaps this is also a demonstration that the true American religion is capitalism. A person who gets a nice undergraduate degree by paying other people to do the irksome but necessary work may well be accepted eagerly into an MBA program. And thence on to the business world, where the fine art of incentivizing is greatly prized.

Please do not use the expression "incentivize" or any of its bastard variants.It reminds me of how those in politics talk.

Much of the problem with the piece is that it is total BS. Run the numbers on what this guy claims to write annually and you'll see that no human could write this much coherent prose. At best his clients are paying $2K for a paper that will earn them a D-.

He claims that none of his clients have been caught cheating, but he doesn't know, and it's unlikely he would ever find out.

Cheating is a big problem in higher education, but the cheaters are not prospering. Those who are smart enough and put in the effort required to cheat successfully are those that can succeed on their own merits.

In higher education, administrators often equate failure of students with failure of the instructor to educate properly.

A college/university is a reflection of the students admitted.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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