When he hits a computer glitch and gets routed away from the short-skirted, smiling pom-pom squad, Einstein (who asked that his real name not be used for reasons that will become obvious) pulls Internet commands from his database and pastes them into a Word Notepad, scanning the lines of code to see what went wrong.
Einstein graduated from William Jewell College two years ago, but his friend, who attends the University of Missouri-Kansas City, might not be so lucky.
In 2001, Einstein discovered a site called Elance Online, on which Web designers, software programmers, technical writers and other professionals bid their services to small businesses.
In August of that year, the 21-year-old information systems major had already been offered a job by a Kansas City-based software company. But he was also proficient at guzzling 40-ounce beers and smoking pot, so his good fortune in the job market was kind of a bummer: He had to finish college but lacked the motivation to keep studying.
For his senior project, Einstein's professor assigned him to a team of four students to develop a database for store owners to catalog customer demographics. "The type of thing that lets managers at Panera know when some guy named John comes in at lunch to order the turkey and artichoke sandwich," he says.
Most college cheat sites sell prewritten papers with footnotes from unlikely sources that students have to change to satisfy their specific assignments. But Elance was more customer-friendly.
Einstein paid $70, and within a week his Elance contractor e-mailed him a personalized database. The program came without a name on it; Einstein owned the copyright. His group earned a B.
"It was only a B because we handed it in pretty much the way we got it," Einstein says. "It would've been an A easy if we put any effort into it."
In May 2002, the night before his last final, Einstein used the site again, contracting a 22-page programming paper to a provider in India. It cost him another $70, but he went out and partied. The twelve-hour time difference between countries meant that while Einstein was drinking, someone else was working. The paper appeared in his Yahoo mailbox the next morning.
Einstein made the dean's list and maintained a 3.2 grade-point average.
No one at Elance asked any questions about his use of the service, Einstein says. "I just needed to get something done, and they bid to get it done."
Einstein told his friend John Hawking, a junior at UMKC, about his discovery. Hawking, a stocky, chiseled guy who also asked that his real name not be used, didn't care much for school. He sat in climate-controlled auditoriums at the commuter school, feeling socially sidelined. He rated a school's quality according to its parties, and he was miserable at UMKC.
He spent $150 on his first paper but then learned to plan ahead, soliciting work weeks before it was due to field a better price. He used the site for more than ten major projects in classes ranging from political science to philosophy. Before, Hawking's GPA had hovered just above a 2.0. It was refreshing to submit work that won him As.
Elance watches out for and removes postings for college work, spam software or sexually explicit material, company founder and Vice President Beerud Sheth tells the Pitch. He sounds shocked to hear that college kids were harvesting assignments from Elance providers. "We have no intentions to either support or allow such activity," Sheth says. "Often the challenge is, people are creative in hiding it. It's more a detection issue than a policy issue."