For a decade, Dave Tomar made a living helping college students scam their way to a degree. The Rutgers graduate and aspiring writer wrote 4,000 papers for students that number "somewhere in the upper hundreds or low thousands." In 2010, his last year of ghostwriting, he pocketed approximately $50,000 for writing everything from book reports and college essays to 170-page doctoral dissertations.
Tomar first exposed his life working for "online paper mills" in a 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article under the pseudonym Ed Dante. He wrote: "I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students...Of course, I know you are aware that cheating occurs. But you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it."
Recently, Tomar dove deeper into his time as a ghostwriter in the book The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat. TakePart caught up with Tomar about why he took on this job and how he is utilizing what he learned to spark a conversation about why kids cheat.
TakePart: Why did you decide to write papers for students and why did you choose to stop?
Tomar: I was a very angry kid when I got out of school but that wasn't my motive for doing it. My motive was to make a living as a writer, and it really did allow me to do that. However, the anger was something that allowed me to feel okay about it. I didn't take school very seriously when I was in it, and I certainly didn't take it very seriously after I had left. Really, the big transition was just growing up.
For a number of years I was doing this job, and I was no longer angry, but I felt locked into it, like I think anybody feels when they are doing a job they don't necessary like or feel good about. At that point I was no longer rationalizing it. In my head I was saying, how do I get out of this? It's ironic—I never felt I'd get out of it by telling everyone this is what I'm doing. I had that revelation, though, that the only way to get out of it was to make a clean break of it. It's not enough to just stop doing it. I don't regret all the things I learned, but I am repentant about them. I really do want to do whatever I can at this point to undo some of the damage that I certainly helped contribute to.
TakePart: What did you learn about the weaknesses in our education system during your 10 years of writing college papers?
Tomar: There were two things that really come back to me. One was what I felt in school was confirmed for me when I started to do this job, and one was what I learned while doing this job. The first was I always felt I'm not here to learn, I'm here to get grades. I'm here to be credentialized, I'm here to receive a degree. Sadly, not only do a majority of students feel this way, but in a lot of ways, colleges are giving them this message that that's why they are here. The second thing I think I learned from doing this job is just how many students are being pushed into colleges and are woefully unprepared.
There is so much hammering of how do we police the problem, but I think we have to ask the question—why do students feel like this should be a priority?
TakePart: How much do the online paper mills permeate the higher education system?
Tomar: That is hard for me to answer because I have always worked in some isolation. The best frame I can give for it is this: If any staff that I've worked for has 50-75 writers, I can tell you that during finals and midterms, when the scope of work and the amount of work that the students are taking on gets much heavier, there is more work than the staff of writers can handle.
TakePart: What do you hope people take away from the book?
Tomar: First and foremost, when I set out to write the book I thought if I explain how it goes on, all the ins and outs of cheating, then people will have a more open and honest discussion about why it occurs. I think this is something that is lacking within higher education right now. There is so much hammering of how do we police the problem, but I think we have to ask the question, why do students feel like this should be a priority?
Also, I can understand student's anger and frustration—that experience of getting out of school, being afraid, not knowing what you're going to do, and being angry and frustrated that you spent all this money. I hope that Generation X and Y readers will relate to that in my book and that it will be helpful for them…I can't help but feel that there are a lot of young readers who need to hear there are other people going through this.
What are your thoughts on how cheating can be prevented? Let us know in comments.
Related Stories on TakePart:
Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com