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."
But Gina Gerdes says she's able to distinguish college-style solicitations from legitimate business.
After being laid off from Sprint in April 2002, Gerdes founded an enterprise in Lexington, Missouri, developing business plans for rural companies. But her moneymaker is Proartek LLC, a provider for Elance Online. She generates more than 75 percent of her business selling planning and consulting services and technical writing to clients in New York, California, the United Kingdom and Botswana.
She says students post for papers, and college paper brokerages solicit, too.
"I personally have been approached by a couple of different organizations -- Internet services looking for college papers -- through Elance to write the papers for them," Gerdes says. "That's all they do. They employ a group of writers who sit and write college papers about different topics ... and pay you, like, fifty bucks a paper and then turn around and sell it to the student."
Hawking had his Elance purchases sent to a non-UMKC e-mail account. Behind a computer screen, he could pose as a historian looking for a synopsis of the Civil War or a trumpet player wanting a biography on Louis Armstrong.
Last month, he learned that the identity of a service provider could be equally uncertain.
Hawking's girlfriend, a junior at UMKC, needed a paper for an English class. The couple realized that a university employee was moonlighting on Elance when the project's acceptance came from a service provider with a UMKC e-mail address. "That hit a little close to home," Hawking says. "She was really freaking out."
With a deadline looming, Hawking's girlfriend turned in the paper anyway. A week later, she got it back with little comment and a passing grade.
Hawking estimates he had spent more than $600 on Elance-related projects by the end of May, closing out the school year's expenses with two $70 papers for separate classes in his major. The papers arrived late, so he simply skipped class and e-mailed them to his professors. Behind in credits, he wouldn't graduate for another year anyway.
Four days later, Hawking sat in familiar plastic chairs to take his final exams. In his morning class, the professor returned his first Elance paper without a word. The same thing happened in his afternoon class. He received a zero on both assignments. Both had "plagiarism" scrawled across the top.
Hawking won't challenge the accusations, which caused him to fail the courses. "They don't really have anything to incriminate me on," he says. "But it's one of those things that, if you fight it, it'll turn out worse."
A UMKC official says the college handles an average of fifty cases of academic dishonesty a year. Its 14,000 students are among the approximately 99,000 people enrolled in classes throughout the metro area and Lawrence.
This summer, Hawking will tromp past the arboretum at Linda Hall Library to another drab, air-conditioned auditorium. He's taking summer classes for more hours than he expected while he waits for a university audit to see if the two failed classes will affect his graduation date.
His friend Einstein sits on his back porch in the evenings, after working at the computer job he was offered before he graduated. A slow trail of smoke swirls though a blown-glass pipe pressed against his lips.