Nairobi — The growth of online college degrees has created more opportunities for American students to outsource their schoolwork, resulting in a booming billion-dollar cheating industry centered in the East African country of Kenya.
Many impoverished young people in Kenya invest heavily in their educations but find it difficult to find work after they finish their studies. Looking for a way to support themselves after school, they go into the business of helping American students cheat.
"You can't steal. You have to find something to do for yourself," William, a young man in Kenya who works in the cheating industry told CBS News. He requested that we not use his real name in our report.
William pays U.S. websites for accounts to connect with American students and then subcontracts the cheating work out to other Kenyan writers. He makes over $2,000 a month but says he's ashamed of working in the "essays-for-hire" industry.
"It's not really something you should be proud about, telling people that you help others cheat," he said.
How does it work?
Reputable U.S. websites with names like "Essay JedII" offer legitimate services like academic assistance, tutoring or research. Some American students, however, use these sites to connect with writers in Kenya who they hire to do their schoolwork for them, from one-off essays to completing entire college degrees.
American students pay between $20 and $50 for a page of work written by a Kenyan writer in a process known as "contract cheating." Account owners, like William, typically take a 75% cut of the profits and then subcontract some of the work out to other writers, who can earn as little as $5 a page.
Contract cheating is illegal in 17 states, but it's not illegal at the federal level and enforcement is rare.
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Education said it "is not permitted to exercise control over matters related to curriculum or academic policies of an institution." Instead, it said that "regulations regarding distance education require that federally recognized accrediting agencies have requirements whereby institutions have processes in place that establish that any student who registers in a distance education course or program is the same student who engages in the course or program. These standards and processes help institutions identify instances of academic dishonesty. An accrediting agency could review those policies."
The website Essay JedII said, "any delivered products are considered as research services and/or original samples and should not be used as completed papers for further submission in educational establishments, however, we can not control or limit its further usage as the consumer owns the copyright." They said they were "unpleasantly surprised" to hear their platform could be used for cheating and that they would work to strengthen their verification processes.
William, who was struggling to pay his rent before he started working in the cheating industry, says he has done entire degrees for some of his clients.
"I did (one student's) degree, and now I'm doing his master's," he told CBS News. "He's promised me that I'm also going to do his PhD."
"We trust our doctors have been to medical school"
"I think the state of cheating at colleges and universities is serious and getting more serious," David Rettinger, a professor of ethics at the University of Mary Washington, told CBS News.
He said that cheating is problematic because it means people can graduate from degree programs without actually being qualified in their fields.
"We trust our doctors have been to medical school," Rettinger said. "Cheating leads us to overall social corruption because it leads us to having a cadre of professionals who can't actually do the work that they claim they can do."
Joanne, who also requested that we not use her real name in our report, got into the cheating industry when she was unable to find a job after graduating from high school in Nairobi, said she is doing some U.S. student's entire courses in a wide range of subjects.
"Yesterday I did an argumentative essay on emotional support animals, and I also did research on the invention of insulin," she told CBS News.
"They just have the name, but then we've got the skills"
Between them, Joanne and William say they have enabled American students to cheat their way through everything from U.S. history to engineering — even medicine. They say the cheating requests come from everywhere, from small online colleges to major state universities.
William says he wants to quit working in the cheating trade, but with so many Kenyans living in dire poverty, he says there will be many more graduates waiting to take his place.
"They just have the name, but then we've got the skills," William says, of all the academic work he has done. "We've got the knowledge and we've got the experience."
for more features.