When The Chronicle published a confessional essay two years ago by a writer for a student-paper mill who had spent nearly a decade helping college students cheat on their assignments, it provoked anger, astonishment, and weary resignation.
The writer, under the pseudonym Ed Dante, said he had completed scores of papers for students who were too lazy or simply unprepared for their work at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels.
The academic ghostwriter has retired, and in his new memoir, he reveals his true identity: Dave Tomar, 32, a graduate of the bachelor’s program in communications at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus and, now, a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
In The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat, which is due out next month from Bloomsbury, Mr. Tomar seeks to cast himself as a millennial antihero while scolding colleges for placing the pursuit of money and status above student learning.
He recounts how, as an alienated and angry young man, he felt he had been “defrauded” by an academic system that broke its promises to students. An opportunity for revenge presented itself in the fall of his junior year, when a classmate asked him to write her sociology paper in return for $90, which he needed to get his car out of the tow lot. Word spread among students, and business started booming.
In the book, Mr. Tomar sometimes strains to rationalize his choices by citing a larger cultural malaise, one in which he says institutions like Wall Street can crash the economy without consequence. It is also one in which students, who have been indulged by their parents and teachers to believe they can reach their dreams despite their shortcomings, will find themselves woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead.
The book also offers an unsettling account of higher education at perhaps its most cynical and mercantile. Some of his clients are rich and entitled, and see outsourcing their papers as a logical extension of the transactional nature of their relationship with their college. Others are simply unprepared for college because they lack the ability or the language skills to communicate adequately in English.
“There was a clear economic demand for it,” he said, during an interview, of students’ interest in his services. “To them it was a financial transaction utterly consistent with everything else about college.”
When asked how professors should engage those students, Mr. Tomar said he had little criticism for faculty members. “I don’t think professors are most of the reason that students are cheating,” he said. “There are broad institutional effects.”
He articulates those effects somewhat vaguely in the book, but they include universities’ pursuit of prestige, the “economic implications of colleges,” and an emphasis on grading over learning. Students, out of pragmatism or laziness, he says, seek to get the best grades for the least effort.
As he wrote papers for students across a range of institutions, Mr. Tomar said in the interview, he saw vastly different levels of expectations. The lowest, he said, was at for-profit colleges, where he often saw the same assignment recycled. Sometimes he was hired to complete writing assignments for online discussions at for-profits, where the grades are based on whether the work is completed, not on its quality. Such work received little of his attention, he said, “because it was clear to me that nobody, nobody, nobody cares.”
He also aims his ire at more-traditional institutions, and none more so than Rutgers, which he decries as a “money farm” that sold him on an idealized version of Walden Pond but gave him Wal-Mart instead.
In the book, Mr. Tomar catalogs his grievances with Rutgers, starting with epic battles over parking tickets. He also recounts a Kafkaesque episode with an administrator who called him two days before he was due to graduate to tell him that a course he took two years earlier had been recategorized and would prevent him from earning his diploma. After hearing his “yelling and spitting” on the telephone, Mr. Tomar writes, the staff member in the registrar’s office looked at his transcript one more time and realized she had made a mistake.
He graduated, though he received the wrong diploma in the mail.
“My Rutgers education came with a major caveat to the emptor,” he writes in his book. “You are on your own.”
Propelled by Alienation
Mr. Tomar acknowledged in the interview that the large public institution did not suit him, and that his sense of anger and alienation, which began in adolescence, increased in college and beyond. “When I started doing this job,” he said, “I was so angry over my university experiences and just over the direction of our culture in general.”
As a student he was turned off by his classmates’ prizing of grades over learning. Essentially, he was able to parlay his job writing papers for other students into a second education, one in which he was paid to learn. He found it much more exciting and valuable.
But he is at a loss to say precisely what colleges should do differently. “We are so deeply entrenched for a lot of economic reasons in this cost structure where colleges have inflated their costs so dramatically, but the return on it is completely static,” he said. “I think everyone is a co-conspirator.”
Mr. Tomar’s sense of his role in that conspiracy remains complicated. He writes about one point when he took a particularly dim view of his work, during a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his then girlfriend, whose parents questioned his career choice. “Even if I can rationalize what I’m doing, I can’t take any pride in it,” he recounts saying to her. “Your parents are right. My parents are right. I’m trash.”
A more-rewarding phase of his work, he writes, was when he was engaged by “RP,” a doctoral student in psychology for whom Mr. Tomar wrote two to three papers each week for a year. It allowed Mr. Tomar to sustain his attention in one discipline, which helped him gain insight into his life.
But there were other potential consequences at play in the relationship. In the book, Mr. Tomar envisions ruefully that his client may one day be able to present himself, fraudulently, as a doctor of psychology. In the interview, he argued that he played just a minor part in allowing that to happen (if, indeed, RP did finish his doctorate, which Mr. Tomar said he prefers not to know).
While he helped RP earn acceptable grades on written assignments, such measures should not be the only determinants of whether someone graduates or gets a job, he said. “There were a lot of different checkpoints along the way where people missed it,” he said. “This is not to rationalize my guilt in the matter. I know what I did. I know I contributed to that. I probably helped him jump over a checkpoint here or there. But I am one very small dimension of this person’s occupational advance.”
Eventually, the strain of 20-hour workdays, arguments with self-righteous clients, and the looming sense that he could be doing something better with his life got to him.
A discussion about two years ago with a friend about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers crystallized his discontent. In that book, Mr. Gladwell describes 10,000 hours as the amount of time someone needs to truly master a skill. Mr. Tomar did a rough calculation of how much time he had spent writing papers since 2000. At a minimum, he had spent 25,000 hours doing it. He was done.
He expects his new book to stir strong reactions in readers, and he hopes it focuses discussion on the value of learning. He also thinks his book will strike a chord with millennials who are burdened by high debt and dim employment prospects.
“There are going to be more young people than anyone realizes who are going to say, ‘I understand this experience, and I understand the idea of being angry. I understand the idea of feeling like I had a lot of promises broken to me,’” he said. “It’s really a book about the quarter-life crisis.”