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First for love, then for a few select friends, and finally for money

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Here’s a fascinating and sobering little essay about how a desperate recent college grad got sucked into the world of writing papers for college students. Some of the writer’s clients were pretty much what I at least would have expected:

Toward the end of April 2020, a college friend of mine reached out: “Are you looking for work? I work for this essay writing service, and they’re offering referral bonuses to anyone who joins the team.”

He told me he was writing essays for college kids for a website called Killer Papers, and he was making tons of money. The owner had claimed 30 percent sales growth since most students had moved to distance learning.

Just 24 hours later, I had already interviewed and written my first essay: $40 for a three-page “reflection paper” on how COVID had been affecting college students. Fitting.

I got a quick education on what this system for black-market essays really looks like. The overarching stereotype is that privileged sons and daughters of wealthy families use their money to cheat their way out of their work and into a degree. And … sure, this is often true.

“My parents are doctors, so we’re pretty loaded,” said one client, who claimed he was “cool with the owner of the site” and had been using it since 2017.

“Oh, nice!” I said as I ate my grilled cheese and typed my seventh paper of the day from the basement of my parents’ house.

More disappointing were the many parents who encouraged this behavior, with some going as far as requesting the essay and purchasing it all without their kid lifting a finger. Their children were so lazy that they couldn’t even work with me to get it done. “My son is on the lacrosse team, so try to incorporate a sports struggle into this narrative,” one mother instructed me. I did as I was asked, so long as they left me a tip so I could afford gas.

But the writer’s clientele turns out to be far more diverse than lazy rich kids expecting Mommy and Daddy to pay someone else to do their schoolwork:

But for every privileged kid too lazy to write an essay, there was a more complex story. To my surprise, of the hundreds of clients I worked with, many—maybe most—students were simply desperate for the help.

They were not rich. Students would try to negotiate prices or work out payment plans. They said things like “I’ll be back to accept your offer on Friday when my check clears.” An assistant manager at Taco Bell, a drive-through operator at Wendy’s, a cashier at Whole Foods— you name it. My clients had a variety of low-income jobs and attended classes simultaneously. I’d ask them a question about their project, and they wouldn’t get back for a day or two. When I’d finally hear back, they’d say, “Sorry, I was working a double.”

And more often than not, it wasn’t students—or parents—at elite colleges purchasing papers. It was students at community colleges working for minimum wage who didn’t have time to write them.

It was single parents who had to balance work, child care, and college. They often had kids and multiple jobs, and they were just trying to advance their careers with a degree.

Obviously college degrees obtained under these sorts of circumstances trend toward becoming evidence of pure credentialing in the worst sense, as opposed to evidence of an actual educational experience. But in an economy and culture in which “college graduate” has become increasingly synonymous with “qualified to obtain minimally decent employment,” and in which obtaining a BA or even a two year degree becomes increasingly expensive, this sort of desperate gaming of the system is an eminently predictable result.

And of course getting a college degree is a long way from an actual guarantee of such employment, as the writer’s own experience illustrates in a — under the circumstances — grimly ironic way.

One of the great challenges of the next few decades is to come up with solutions to the increasing economic dislocation of the increasingly large numbers of people who can’t win the educational credentialing game. Between Republicans who don’t see any of this as a problem, and a higher education establishment that for obvious reasons believes the solution is to find ways to issue more college degrees, this isn’t going to be easy to do. But the necessity of doing it is going to become ever more evident as the children of Generations Y and Z look for their own places in our society.

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