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Culture of Cheating in College

Why Do Students Cheat

Cheating in our schools has become commonplace. About 70 percent of high-school students reported they have cheated. Ninety percent admit to having copied student’s homework. The rate of students who admit to cheating at least once in their college careers has held steady at somewhere around 75 percent since the first major survey on cheating in higher education in 1963. With an increasingly competitive atmosphere and a culture that is more accepting of cheating than it was in past generations, cheating has become a somewhat expected phenomenon at universities across the country.

College administrators largely seem to have accepted the notion that the blame for cheating lies either at the feet of morally bankrupt students or within the overall campus climate. As a result, their efforts to reduce cheating have focused on creating first-year orientations or seminars on academic integrity, or on instituting deterrent measures like suspensions or expulsions for cheaters who are caught. Quite frankly, this is a misguided attempt to control cheating. First-year orientations and seminars do no good because it won’t change the culture of cheating in colleges.

Who is to blame for the cheating crisis? Some people engage in academic dishonesty because they are dishonest. But recent research into cheating and dishonesty suggests a different conclusion: Most of us are willing to engage in acts of dishonesty under the right circumstances. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely demonstrated in a fascinating series of experiments and reported in his book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” the extent to which people are willing to engage in acts of cheating and dishonesty “depends on the structure of their daily environment.” The structure of that environment proves more influential than an individual’s ethical profile or some general cultural milieu.

What are the causal factors that explain the increased cheating? Here are a few that I have noticed during my thirty-plus years of teaching at the college level.

  • Everybody does it. I need to stay competitive.
  • The exams are too difficult.
  • Professors do not monitor exams: I cheat because I can.
  • I need to cheat I need to cheat to get good grades; get a better job.
  • Everyone cheats in society; this is the expected standard of behavior. Cheat 1

These reasons are largely rationalizations for unethical conduct. The more compelling reasons are the myriad of ways students can cheat today. It ranges from simply writing out the most essential material in the palm of one’s hands to using a smart phone to receive answers from classmates, and a lot in-between.

The underlying cause of cheating is a changing ethical standard of right and wrong. Today, our actions are viewed through the lens of ethical relativism. Everything is relative to the situation. Cheating occurs because other students cheat and there is a need to keep up. People lie on their resumes to get a better job. Politicians cheat and may even divert funds. Financial executives cheat and even commit fraud with little or no consequences if they get caught.

What can be done to reverse course? Not much, I fear, because most professors do not want to go through the ordeal of bringing cheating charges against their students. They accept cheating because they lack the courage to do what it takes to stop it. Some professors are lazy and use the same exams term after term. They even realize the exam questions are probably already available to students through fraternities and because some students take screen shots on their smart phones. Also, students can buy solutions manuals on line.

We live in a no consequences society. We live in a time where ethical behavior is an after-thought, if thought of at all. I expect cheating to get worse for all the reasons discussed in my blog. The real losers here are the potential employers who may wind up hiring students who have not earned their grades through hard work.

The logical conclusion of cheating gone unchecked is cheating students are more likely to cheat in other areas of their life including in personal relationships and in the workplace. Cheating won’t stop until the downward spiral in ethics is reversed, and it won’t happen because, as a society, we have come to expect it and some emulate such unethical behavior. We lack the role models to show us there is another way – a better way – a more righteous way.

Blog posted on June 28, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage. Check out my website at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/.