Plagiarism and Millennial Entitlement

Many millennials resent the stereotype that our generation is self-centered and demands coddling. The truth is that today’s college students face many pressures that their parents didn’t. College is more expensive than ever, and it is no longer possible to pay your way through by working part-time. I have personal friends who have engaged in all manner of overworking to pay tuition, ranging from legitimate but demanding part-time job schedules, to sex work and drug trafficking gigs that put them in danger of the law.

Clearly, we need to find a way to make college financially accessible, whether that’s through free tuition at community colleges, encouraging students to transfer into four-year institutions after completing an associate degree, or reversing the trend of universities prioritizing merit-based scholarships and reducing need-based aid. I support these measures, and I think that if our higher education system had a conscience, or at least a tax incentive for acting like it had one, it would have adopted many or all of them years ago.

And like anyone who believes that colleges have a responsibility to care for their students and ought not act like for-profit businesses, I also believe that there is a line at which the college’s responsibilities end and the student’s responsibilities begin. In this post, I will attempt to draw that line.

An editorial published last week in the Daily Trojan, a publication I write for, reads,

Recently businesses have been exploiting student desire for academic perfection by providing services for students that promote educational malfeasance. While this is so, we must also realize that student cheating is due to the campus climate—that is, the hypercompetitive culture of American universities that propel students to opt into higher levels of cheating.

I have encountered similar defenses of plagiarism before. The argument, when fleshed out, goes like this: Students are already working twenty-five hours a day to keep on top of their tuition bills and don’t have time to do their homework. Plus, college coursework is really hard, which isn’t fair, because a college degree is the new high school diploma. And since the point of college is mainly to get ahead in the workforce anyway, plagiarizing is just how you maximize your ROI without endangering your health.

But let’s remind ourselves of this editorial’s subject: third-party services that sell students original essays and problem solutions. The author even helpfully lists the popular ones in the sentence following the above quote. Some of them, she says, will complete a whole course for you.

She neglects one thing: these services are expensive. On the topic of friends who have done illicit work to pay tuition, one English major I know made $100 an essay by writing college applications for seniors in the class under her at her high school. This guy makes 2500 GPB per dissertation—3300 dollars, or over 3700 pre-Brexit. Ed Dante, another “shadow scholar” writing pseudonymously for The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall link), reportedly makes $66k a year. (At least the cheating economy is keeping humanities majors employed.)

A quote from Dante:

From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let's be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn't get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

It’s not struggling, overworked, poor college students who are paying for custom-written essays. It’s students who are already in a strong financial position, and buying plagiarized work solidifies their place at the top of the academic pecking order.

For all the avowed progressivism of arguments defending the various recourses college students take to stay in school, failing to hold students accountable for plagiarism is a surefire way to keep hardworking students with limited financial resources at the bottom of the food chain.

So, in response to the title of this Daily Trojan article: The cheating economy is not a new symptom that “reveals” a deeper problem. The cheating economy is there and has always been. It is the deeper problem.