Students and parents throughout Central Asia say the cost of a passing grade on an exam can amount to as much as a month's wage -- and that a place in university can run to hundreds or thousands of dollars. But for society the cost of such a system is medical doctors who are not qualified to practice or universities that cannot teach.
Izat Normuradov is a student in Uzbekistan who has seen the system from the inside. "By taking part in bribery, a student doesn't help his knowledge in his or her chosen field. One example is medicine. Students who obtain their degrees through bribery cannot even explain the theory of what is going on, let alone try to practice in his or her field," Normuradov says.
Medicine is one of the most difficult disciplines a student can choose. But the same weakening of standards applies to all of the sciences and professions -- lawyers unqualified to practice law, engineers who cannot build bridges or design factories.
The mother of an Uzbek student says that she fears the lack of proper knowledge among future decision-makers does not bode well for the long-term development of her country.
"They should pay special attention to reforming [the education system]. In the worst case, this is leading to a crisis. The way down. This will only lead to a crisis," the mother says.
Some local universities increasingly see it as in their own best interest to try to reduce corrupt practices -- but these are still relatively few in number. Two schools often singled out in this regard include the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP), and the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek.
In practice, the better students are often forced to study abroad, where standards are much higher. Luckier ones can find the financial and logistical support to study in the U.S. or Europe. Russia is also a popular destination.
Bagtyyar is a former Turkmen student who eventually moved to Western Europe with his family in order to get a worthwhile education.
"[In Turkmenistan] I applied for the English-language department,” he says. “After one month of study, they had to find room in the department for the daughter of a minister. So the university administration transferred me and another student to the Russian department. I studied there two years and then left the country. There was no chance to study there."
Tajik student Farrukh says he is considering going to Russia to complete his degree in medicine.
"I finished [the first part of] medical school in Dushanbe and then tried to enter the [higher] medical university. But the professors all asked me for money. They seemed more interested in getting the money than they did in teaching the students. I tried to get in [without paying a bribe] and I couldn't. So I instead I went to a [lower level] medical college. I'll try to enroll again [in the university of medicine]. If I'm not successful, I'll try in Russia," Farrukh says.
Many of these students choose to remain abroad after they graduate to take advantage of better opportunities there.
Iveta Silova, a senior education adviser for George Soros's Open Society Institute (OSI), says the system of corruption has another hidden cost. Over time, bribery has devalued the reputations of Central Asian schools -- making it harder for local residents to study or practice outside their home countries.
Silova singles out Turkmenistan.
"The worst example is Turkmenistan, which has not only corruption, but the higher education system has only two years of academic study. So no country would actually take any Turkmen student with only two years of academic study in the university for further study. In the other [Central Asian] countries, to a lesser extent, there is also a depreciation of diplomas," Silova says.
So what can be done to halt the brain drain and erosion of professional standards? In the fourth and final part of our series on corruption in education, we look at tentative efforts to reform the system.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen, Tajik and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)