“As it turned out, helping students cheat on papers was the only available job for which my college had prepared me,” he claims in one of many moments of amusing, if not always attractive, self-pity.
The most entertaining parts of the book are the exchanges with his barely literate clients: “Hello Dear writer. Could you do me a faver to meet my essay’s topic and finish it before 7pm tonight. It is the deadline for me!!!!!!!!!!” When aspects of this particular exchange become confusing, Tomar realizes it is because he is corresponding with the student and the student’s mother, who is complicit in her child’s cheating.
Tomar’s insider descriptions of how the paper mills operate are illuminating; the one he primarily works for is a surprisingly good employer. “The company never bounced a check to me, and it never paid me late. I always got paid exactly what I’d earned. . . . If I was on the right side of a dispute with a customer, the company went to bat on my behalf.”
This is more than Tomar can say for his legitimate but demoralizing day job at an industrial cleaning supply company, where he is forced to lie when assailed by angry creditors.
Also revelatory are the predatory practices of some for-profit colleges. Tomar describes an alarming tactic known as “guerrilla registration,” by which academic advisers enroll students in classes they never take, without their consent, and even after they have sought to withdraw. “In any given month,” Tomar reports, “the admissions manager might find himself five reenrolled students away from meeting his recruitment quota. Therefore, ten of those fifteen students would be granted their withdrawal. The other five withdrawal requests would be ignored. . . . They would accrue fines for failure to attend classes and accumulate debt for the classes from which they had attempted to withdraw. On the bright side, the admissions manager would meet his recruitment quota.”
Between these two books and the flurry of headlines sparked by the recent Harvard scandal, it’s tempting to endorse theses about how modern technology, increased pressure on the college admissions process and a shrinking job market may have unleashed an epidemic of cheating. Tomar pins the culture of cheating he inhabits on the Internet and Gen Y culture. He cites a Pew Research Center study that concluded, “Unlike the Silent Generation, Boomers and Gen X . . . Gen Y is the only generational cohort that doesn’t cite ‘work ethnic’ as a defining characteristic.” Yet such sweeping generalizations ignore the fact that cheating has always gone on; in the pre-Internet days, paper mills used to advertise in the backs of magazines.
Zauzmer’s book, too, offers what feel like boilerplate statistics on cheating. Perhaps they were tacked on to lend the book some gravitas, which it does not need. “As many as 14 percent of essays are plagiarized,” she writes in her introduction, “50 percent of transcripts are faked, and 90 percent of recommendation letters are forged among some groups of college applicants.” These are alarming numbers, but the author doesn’t make clear their context or their meaning.
Even if the connection between cheating and some broader corruption in higher education is tenuous, these two books make excellent sidebar reading. They are best understood not as harbingers of a trend but as anomalies, traffic accidents of human behavior, shocking and compelling enough to justify rubbernecking.
is the author of four novels, including “Acceptance,” a comedy about the college admissions process.