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Should Kids Be Able to Buy Their Way Through College?

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This one has really thrown me for a loop. I feel like I’ve seen something I can never unsee.

Online essay writing services.

Did you know there was such a thing?

I didn’t. And that makes me feel like maybe I’ve been living under Pollyanna’s Rock of Idealism all these years.

Sure, way back in college I remember hearing about kids paying other kids to write their papers for them. So I guess it’s been happening all along, but the fact that now a kid can order up an essay on demand from their smartphone just as they would a pizza seems to hit a new educational low to me.

And when you read the sites (and there are a TON of them) they all promote themselves from the same angle - “You’re busy, you have too much work, you have too many assignments to complete, you have better things to do with your time, etc.”

Really? REALLY? Kids are going tens of thousands of dollars (or more) into debt to attend college and they have better things to do with their time other than writing their own papers?

I’m not really sure who these sites are trying to appeal to - is it the slackers trying to skate through school with the least amount of effort possible? Or is there truth to the image of the overburdened college student? Or then again, could it be for kids in technical majors such as engineering or applied science who maybe are gifted in their own right but suffer in the expressive writing department?

All of the above, I suppose.

(You’re probably wondering how I found this whole underworld <though it’s not really that far under, it’s in plain view on the internet with just a simple keyword search>, and that’s a valid question. I was reading an online article about writing for social media and when I got to the bottom, I read the author’s bio. It said she worked for a company called buyanessay or something like that and the name of the site piqued my curiosity, so I clicked to it. And that’s when I lost my innocence on the topic.)

Anyway, back to the subject at hand - my outrage.

I clicked through that first site, looking at how they appeal to stressed out kids (or maybe just lazy ones) and even read the page called “Is This Legal?”. The sites (all of them) declare that they never plagiarize, so in that regard it’s legal (assuming you trust their pledge). But is it unethical? If you read these sites, they’ll tell you why it’s not. Is it against most schools’ code of academic honor? I assume so (but they don't tell you that).

Where it really bottomed out for me is on the “Rates” page of a UK-based essay site (you know I had to look, how could I not?!?). They show a clearly defined matrix that details their rates, which are on a sliding scale based on the amount of time before the essay is due (the quicker you need it, the more you pay) and get this - the kind of grade you want.

Yes, I swear it’s true.

You pay more for a B-grade essay than you do for a C-grade essay, and of course you pay the most for an A.

(I could not make this up if I tried, I swear it’s true, it’s on the internet so it must be true, right?!?)

So I spent a few hours in disbelief and outrage, processing this whole thing.

And then things got really interesting for me, because I started playing devil’s advocate with myself.

I thought back to a couple of weeks ago when Winnie was writing her first college paper. The topic was a biographical summary of a person relevant to the course topic, including career and lifetime contributions to the field. The paper was to conclude with a reaction section with the student’s evaluation of the person’s achievements. Not too out of the ordinary, right?

The kicker for me was that the paper was to be two pages, double spaced.  What the heck, I thought, how is this a real college assignment? I write blog posts longer than that. Only two pages?

(Then I went through my own judgmental process of well, this is a community college, what did I expect? These kids today are soft. They don’t know what real work is. Back in my day at Syracuse our papers were way longer than two pages. The professor probably knew that if she asked for more than two pages the kids would just buy their essays. Hmpf.)

Yeah, judge much? Not me.

But when thinking it through yesterday, I realized that maybe this professor is smarter than she appears to me (she is one of the Deans of the school, so she must know something).

Like it or not, we’re in the midst of a major sea change as far as the norms of communication go. Things move at a faster pace than ever before and as we engage with the outside world, there’s not a lot we can do about it other than evolve and adapt accordingly. So the faster kids learn to sift through information, cull the relevant facts and present them cohesively and succinctly, the better we’re preparing them for life in the working world.

We’re living through a make it quick, clear and concise cultural revolution and we need our kids to lead the way. At the pace of life and business today, we no longer have use for verbosity, lengthy expository writing, or even bunches of persuasive writing.

Do I think this is a good change? Not entirely. I think personally, as relationships go, we’re suffering by resorting to connecting by texts, status updates, and 140-character tweets. But even those who bemoan the effects of social media on relationships fall prey to the impact of pace, though. In one online group I’m in it’s obvious that any post longer than a paragraph gets glanced over (if that) and never responded to. Even though the subject of the email may be complex and personal and require more explanation, if it takes any toll on the reader, it’s largely ignored. And in this case, relationships deteriorate because of it. It’s unfortunate and I feel it as a personal loss, but I’m also trying to see it as a natural ebb and flow of the times.

But in the case of business communication, the risk of deterioration is just too great, so we need to teach kids to be great consumers and producers of information that’s appropriate to the times, the context and the audience. They need to be able to read, process, analyze, formulate their thoughts and then communicate them via the path of least resistance. Because for information consumers (which is all of us), there’s a lot of competing noise out there. Clarity and brevity win the game.

We can’t change the fact we live in a world of information overload. The best we can combat that, though, is by becoming skilled in information indexing and resource management. We don’t need to hold a lifetime’s worth of knowledge in our heads anymore as we did in days gone by. It’s wasted energy now. We just need to access it when we need it, or find the right person to supply it.

So are we really doing our kids any favors by requiring them to write long, prosaic papers expanding on and proving a thesis statement? How many term papers have you written since college? How many term papers have you read since college?

I’m not proposing we scrap writing from kids’ curriculums, in fact two of my kids are enrolled in an essay writing course right now. I believe that reading, analyzing and formulating thoughts and expressing them in writing are all critical skills and I could happily argue that they are the most critical skills to come out of schooling.

But can I in good conscience take this to the level of agreeing that assigning long, theoretical papers in college is a good use kids’ time and energy? I’m just not as sure about that as I used to be.

I still wholeheartedly disagree with students buying essays, or any school assignment for that matter, rather than completing it themselves.

But that community college professor, the one who assigned my daughter a two-page paper that I haughtily assumed lacked enough academic rigor?

Maybe she was on to something after all.

As the Piles Grow, So Does the Guilt

Silent Sunday