"I didn’t charge enough"
The year 2009 was a year of big changes for me. I graduated with my M.A. in Professional Writing. My husband and I moved across the country from Georgia to California. And the economy fell off a cliff.
I know what you’re thinking. Someone with a degree in “Professional Writing” should probably expect to have a hard time finding a job regardless of what’s happening in the economy, but I swear I thought this out.
Graduate school gave me tangible skills with classes in document design and editing. I had a great experience and you should all shake your heads sadly and learn from my choices.
I wasn’t worried because I have had a job since I was 15. So what if nobody’s hiring? Convenience store, call center, restaurant, doesn’t matter. I’ve worked them all and I have no shame.
After a few weeks I realized just how competitive the job market actually is in Los Angeles. Restaurants asked for head shots with my application. My master’s degree made every retail store give me the side eye. I was suddenly unqualified and overqualified for everything.
Aside from being underemployed, I quickly learned that LA is a super expensive city. Like $7 for a domestic draft beer expensive. My part-time job and unpaid internship kept me firmly at home watching television and eating ramen noodles every night while interest added up on my student loans.
My husband suggested that maybe I could make some money offering college students help with their college essays. Sure! After 19 years of school, I was definitely qualified to help someone with their homework.
I put together a Craigslist ad detailing my credentials and the responses started rolling in. But instead of “Could you edit my paper?” I was getting “Hey, just do my assignment” or “Could you take my online class?” Well, beggars can’t be choosers, so from 2009 to 2013 I wrote dozens of papers and took several online classes. Here are a few things I learned along the way:
1. People who buy papers come from every walk of life.
It’s easy to assume that all students who buy papers are 20-somethings using mom and dad’s money so they can spend more time being hungover. Sure, there are plenty of those, and those are the ones who were the most demanding and difficult to work with. 20 pages by tomorrow? I’m not a wizard, kid.
But aside from the ne’er do wells, there were non-traditional students who were having a rough time balancing work, family, and a full class load. These students often expressed a lot of guilt, and I have a lot of sympathy for the pressure they were under.
Finally, there were those who were simply overwhelmed and unable to do college level work. Students who bought papers from me went to community college, online programs, USC, and UCLA.
2. I didn’t charge enough.
I loved school, and I even had fun doing a lot of the assignments. Who has two thumbs and had a great time researching a paper about the religious symbolism in the movie Groundhog Day? This gal.
But I also cared too much. I got the same worried knot in the pit of my stomach every time an assignment was due, and I stressed over the work as if I were the one getting the grade. If I had to do it over again I would realize that $75 for a four-page paper that required research and MLA formatting was practically giving it away.
3. You probably won’t get caught.
In the beginning, I would tell students that it would be a good idea to take the paper I wrote and put it in their own words. You’d think it would be a glaring issue for a student who’s had trouble the entire semester to turn in an “A” paper that doesn’t sound like anything else they’ve written. You’d be wrong.
I know a handful of adjunct professors, and as long as the paper is original (meaning chunks of the writing isn’t being recycled from other papers or online sources) they often don’t have the time or support of the administration to accuse someone of plagiarism. I would also add that they don’t get paid enough to weed out people buying papers, but that’s another essay.
4. You really are only cheating yourself.
Do I feel guilty? A little, but mostly for the other students who are working hard and giving it “the old college try” and getting lumped in with people who are buying assignments. It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair.
People who avoid work in college will find other ways to get through life and it will either catch up with them, or they will have to spend the rest of their lives trying to find people to do their work.
5. We should really stop herding people into college.
I can’t tell you how many students couldn’t compose a simple email that told me what their assignment was and when it was due. Red flag right? Not for “for profit” colleges it isn’t. You got a pulse and qualify for student loans? You’re in!
These students lack basic skills and aren’t ready for college, but that doesn’t stop schools from signing them up for thousands of dollars in student debt. These institutions have much lower graduation rates than the national average and students from for-profit colleges are much more likely to default on their student loans. It’s still a tough economy out there and most of these folks will end up in the same position I was in 2009 — but without the skills to do other people’s homework for cash.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email firstname.lastname@example.org.