Struggle Against Study: How To Scam Your Way Through College—with Pay

Processed World's guide to scamming your way through college.

“What's wrong with education?” many people like to ask, as if to fix it. What's “wrong” is that education — particularly the university — is under attack from within by its students' refusal of work, and nothing can be done about it short of abolishing the schools, which is fine with me. Many of us want it all now, and this doesn't often include work, waged or unwaged. Scamming is the way we satisfy our needs: cheating, using financial aid for things besides school, and graduating after having done little or no work whatsoever. I'm a scammer, and when I'm done I hope to have a Ph.D. This is a guide for you to get one too.

Scamming as a Tactic. In one sense, universities are merely factories that expect students to do the unwaged work of teaching ourselves to work endlessly, without direct supervision, but with periodic productivity checks (tests, grades, GPAs). The crisis in higher education suggests that we have been relatively successful at both refusing and transcending this process: There has been some transformation of the university into spaces that serve our desires to learn about ourselves and our histories.

Refusal, however, is not limited to “multiculturalism” or “student activism,” but includes scamming and refusing all school/work no matter what its content. And it occurs on such a widespread level that it already has networks that circulate tests, notes, papers, and other information and techniques. Scamming's significant advantage over traditional student movements that make demands through protesting is that it focuses on undermining the logic of the system, and the processes within which we are forced to operate; merely protesting for changes in the system does not. The best part of it is that this can go undetected indefinitely, while protesters can be easily identified and cut off.

Scamming can combine using “alternative” courses whose content is generally antagonistic to the purposes of the university ‑‑ although many times they merely reproduce the university system through grades, homework, teacher‑student hierarchy, etc. ‑ with using the system against itself. This can be done individually, or in groups (frats and sororities are very good at this) that have circulated information among themselves over time. There may not be an ultimate end ‑‑ other than just hanging out and enjoying life ‑‑ but a long‑term payoff like a diploma indicates nothing about how much one worked to get it. Some scamming students may even end up with a high standard of living, unrelated to the amount they worked in school.

No Work... Of the 121 hours I completed 11 were knocked off before I started, by taking placement tests. Since I receive financial aid, I got to take the tests for free. As a result I skipped my first french semester and the intro classes in my major and english. This worked out well since my first french and english profs told me to my face that I should not have skipped the intro courses.

Self‑designed courses also work well, if you pick the right people. Just find professors who are willing to let you design and pace your own course of study. One possibility is to find one who needs a little assistance on his or her own project. Organize it so you can get away with doing very little. I did.

Internships — working for a business for the piece wages of grades — are possibly the most exploitative offshoot of school, if you don't use them with some imagination. In the late 1980s, I found myself working as a legislative aid. I decided that I might as well use it to get some grades. I signed up for an internship credit and got six hours of A's for a job I was getting paid to do. The two papers I had to write were done mostly at work, on the state's computer.

Use pass/fail options: Majors in my department can take six hours of classes this way, and I used them all. This means you can take a class and do very little work, since even the slightest effort usually results in at least a passing grade of D.

For those remaining classes you have to take, there is little need to actually go. I learned too late that if you borrow at least two people's notes (so you can compare) for the classes you missed, it's as good as being there. Most intro courses have notes available for purchase from local note‑taking businesses. But don't give them your money unless you have to. Just trade notes with people in class. It already happens all the time.

If you don't do as well as you like, go talk to the TA. They will frequently tack on a few points just to get you to leave them alone.

...and Pay. The key to scamming is getting paid while you do it. Although financial aid means some work (and increasingly so to discourage us from it), it's been my subsistence and has paid for traveling ‑‑ for fun and student conferences ‑‑ and has bought everything I own. Since you only need to take 12 credit hours to get full aid, the above scams can help you get through in four years and a summer if you want ‑‑ and I stupidly did before waking up to the possibilities.

This university gives you three “strikes” for violating aid rules. You get a strike for falling below 12 hours or the minimum GPA, or dropping out. (I was able to avoid a strike when I dropped to nine hours by explaining how a fascist professor threatened to fail me if I didn't drop the course. A true story, but it doesn't have to be.) You can drop your courses by a specified date and get back your full tuition and fees, plus keep the aid money. For the next semester all you need to do is apply for a Student Loan Supplement (an “SLS”) to cover the amount they'll subtract from the aid money you were supposed to return. Check into how they do it at your school. I've made up for the reduced aid by taking out an SLS.

To use an SLS you have to be an independent. I had to have my parents sign a paper stating that they would not deduct me from their next return. As an independent, you get nearly full Pell Grants (likely to increase dramatically according to a recent congressional proposal) and you can use SLSs (which, unlike Stafford loans, begin to accrue interest immediately — for those who for some reason intend to repay their loans). Another good use for SLSs is to borrow the amount calculated as the “student contribution” (i.e. a second job), something financial aid doesn't tell you outright.

In all, I scammed on 35 of the required undergraduate 120 hours. And this has all become easier in grad school, since I had only four required classes and have to take only nine thesis hours to have a “full load.”

Aid for grad students is superb. You can borrow up to $50,000 for a master's, and $105,000 total in Stafford loans and SLSs to complete a Ph.D. At about $9,000/year (including the summer) I can work on my master's for five years. Employed grad students can get full aid on top of their salary. That means working, but having more money to fund traveling when you're supposed to be working on your thesis or dissertation. In fact, if you invest the extra money you can make a few thousand extra off the backs of other workers by the time you decide whether to repay the loans.

It has certainly been easy for me to spend three‑and‑a‑half years working on my piddling MA in Fine Arts. Although financial aid only allows you to take 30 hours of course work, I can graduate with incompletes if they are not in my department. I could theoretically keep taking classes outside of my department until my aid runs out and still graduate! I might as well soak up all the $50,000 (or more if congress increases the ceiling) since I don't plan to pay it back.

After two more semesters I'll begin on my dissertation, which could still last for a while, since I haven't borrowed even half the $105,000 I can borrow through Stafford and SLSs. Since I wrote enough for a dissertation while writing my thesis I'll have little work to do. I figure I can go for another four years “working” on my dissertation: Traveling around every semester, coming back to get my aid, and making some gratuitous visits to my committee. I hope by that time the loan cap will be hiked again.

Eating the Insides Out. Financial aid has been a major source of the crisis of the universities both in the US and internationally. In the US, a growing number of students are refusing ‑‑ because they don't want to reduce their standard of living, or they don't care ‑‑ or are unable to repay their loans. Total defaults have doubled since the mid‑'80s. In the meanwhile, guarantors have gone bankrupt, banks refuse to loan students money or delay processing applications, the government and universities are divesting from aid programs, trade schools are being banned from the program, and banks are going under.

Student debt default is considered one of the top reasons for the collapse of banking (along with “Third World” debt, farming loan defaults, etc., thus indicating a link between student, third‑world, and farmers' struggles). Like the shift from grants to loans in the US, using loans to replace free schooling in the UK and Australia can be seen as a response to students' taking and using the money without doing much work.

Scamming makes it damn near impossible for the folks who worry endlessly about what's fucking up their factories to realize what's really going on. While Business Week and the rest cry about the universities churning out “lemons” who don't want to work (they say we “don't know how” or are “unprepared”), we should be looking at ways to circulate tactics for continuing the quiet insurgency. Much of the right‑wing attack on so‑called “PC” is predicated on reimposing discipline in the universities on students who don't so much read Marx instead of Plato, but don't do anything the university plans for us to do—that is, endless hours reading, writing, studying, going to class, etc. Instead, we're busy doing what we want in our own way while using their money, and learning a hell of a lot more as a result. It's no coincidence that right‑wing organizations such as Madison Center and the National Association of Scholars are funded by huge corporations like Coors, Mobil, Bechtel, KMart, and Olin. By learning how not to work we are threatening not only the universities, but capital's control over us through work itself.

The beauty of scamming through school is getting paid to have fun. And because it's not a concerted, organized, explicit movement, it is beyond the grasp of both the university planners and the left. While the Progressive Student Network suggests we “study and struggle,” I say “struggle against study”!

—Sal Acker