Opinionators Weigh in on Early Admissions, Online Essays
> 9/18/2006 3:09:32 PM

In an update of two previous entries, The New York Times Week in Review features commentary on Harvard's recent decision to eliminate early admissions as well as last week's story about students buying plagiarized term papers online.

In the Harvard piece, columnist David Leonhardt comes to the conclusion that Harvard is the only clear winner in this debate. Most agree that the early admissions option strongly favors the financially privledged; in many cases they do not need to devote time and energy to considering student aid and tuition packages, and they frequently receive more extensive coaching from counselors at superior high schools. Still, many colleges rely on early admissions to shore up their incoming classes, and early acceptances are often the best students as well. As Leonhardt puts it:

The colleges then save money on financial aid, because students accepted early have little leverage to negotiate a better package. Perhaps more important, admissions officers can populate a large portion of their freshman class without worrying that an applicant will end up being admitted to a more prestigious college and choose it instead.

Harvard is the most highly esteemed college in the world, and this position clearly grants them greater leverage on the issue. The percentage of students accepted at Harvard who ultimately choose not to attend is very small. When faced with a choice between Harvard and any comparable school, students choose the former by a significant margin. This development may well help level the playing field and result in a larger number of low-income students among Harvard's freshman class, but how will it effect the American college landscape at large? Rivals in privledged positions, like Yale and Brown, will likely be first to follow Harvard's model, but any widescale changes in the admissions process will certainly be gradual.

The Times follows up its story on the current flood of online essays with an examination of more prominent sites and new options for teachers looking to combat the trend. Perhaps the most prominent among these web aides for teachers is Turn It In, a site that allows teachers to add their students' work to a quickly growing database of essays submitted around the world. The program notifies educators when segments are plagiarized from other essays in the database, exposing many student submissions as effortless cut and paste jobs. While most of these sites reveal themselves as simple moneymaking schemes upon closer inspection, some consider themselves public resources and contributors to the greater good of desperate students everywhere. Kevin Smith, founder of the free site Asian Grade.com, argues that he provides a service of convenience to students for whom most writing assignments are simply busy work that never even receives appropriate scrutiny from the teachers involved.

“In fact, the biggest academic con is not plagiarism by students,” the site says, “it’s the fact that teachers pretend to read 25-30 papers on the same subject, semester after semester, year after year ... come on, did you honestly think your teachers enjoy your opinion of Robert Frost’s poems.”

Smith's intentions sound good, but further scrutiny reveals the site's clear potential for abuse:

The point of Asian Grade, Mr. Smith said in the interview, was to provide students with research help, not to encourage them to plagiarize, though he admitted that “we can’t control what they do with it afterwards.” He also did not mention that the site also offers a removal feature whereby, in exchange for a modest fee, a paper — or, rather, research material — can be temporarily or even permanently erased from the database.

Smith makes a certifiable point regarding the ultimate irrelevance of many writing assignments, particularly those of the high school variety. But "busy work" hardly justifies dishonesty, and the grades received by the students who crib from these sites will be tarnished whether they're eventually uncovered or not. The web offers a myriad of cheating opportunities, but sites like Turn It In require students to work around a building anti-plagiarism network, and those who believe they can turn in unoriginal work without concern for possible consequences may be caught by surprise as teachers find it increasingly easier to detect bogus work.

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