The Cheating Epidemic

Last year’s most important book about higher education, Academically Adrift, showed that a high percentage of American college students coast through without learning much. One reason is that many of them cheat.

Harvard prefers to make headlines for its Rhodes Scholars and stratospheric rankings, but it recently made headlines over a cheating scandal. In a notoriously easy course, Government 1310, 125 out of 279 students were found to have cheated on an exam. It was a take-home, open book exam and when the essays were graded, it was clear that many had written answers that were exactly the same as another student’s.

Rita Kramer wrote an excellent piece about the Harvard scandal, arguing that the mania for group learning that has come to dominate much of our education system, K-12 and into college, invites cheating. That is because students, she wrote, “have been so steeped in the culture of cooperative learning that they see helping each other as normal, despite the rules.”

Two recent books cast additional light on college cheating.

Cheating in College by Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield and Linda Trevino is a scholarly examination of this phenomenon. The authors draw several big conclusions, among them that most students who cheat develop that habit long before reaching college, that some two-thirds of students admit to “some form of academic dishonesty” (including students in professional schools), and that many students have such weak ethical compasses that they don’t even think of themselves as cheating when they most certainly are.

As an example of the last point, many students don’t see anything wrong in “writing” a paper by cutting and pasting in passages from material published on the Internet.

The book is heavy on statistical studies and the data show that students are cheating more now than in the past. Students are quick to justify their cheating with a variety of rationales. One is the “everyone’s doing it” excuse. A student is quoted as saying, “In today’s world and culture and climate, ethics has become a major joke! How about Enron, WorldCom, Merrill Lynch, just to name a few!”

Another justification is a bit more subtle. The authors found that students often blame their cheating on the distribution requirements at their schools. The argument goes that it is really unfair for a student who wants to study X to have to take courses (implicitly, demanding courses) in other fields. If they didn’t cheat in those courses they’re not really interested in, they’d be at a disadvantage since landing a good job or getting into grad school depends on having a high GPA. So cheating is all right.

Not only do many students find rationales for their admitted cheating, but they have also redefined cheating so that they aren’t “really” doing it. For example, when asked if copying another student’s test answers was cheating, 35 percent said that it was not “serious” and 7 percent said that it wasn’t cheating at all.

Furthermore, many students see nothing wrong with plagiarism. Perhaps because no one told them during their K-12 years that writing a paper is an exercise to see how well you can explain what you’re supposed to have learned, students seem to believe that a paper assignment is just a matter of filling up the requisite number of pages, even if many of the sentences were written by someone else. Although the book has no data on this point, it seems a reasonable assumption that students largely get away with turning in papers in high school that have been cut and pasted from Internet sources. Therefore, they don’t see what the fuss is about if they’re reprimanded for continuing to do so in college.

Plagiarism has reached such a degree that, the authors report, some professors have simply given up on paper assignments. To the extent that is true, students are missing out on what should be among the most beneficial aspects of college education, namely learning how to write well.

Speaking of plagiarism, the new other book on the subject of cheating, The Shadow Scholar, is a lengthy confession by a man, Dave Tomar, who for a decade made his living mostly by writing papers for students who then turned in Tomar’s work as their own. He wrote thousands of papers and admission essays for students, including—astoundingly—doctoral-level papers in fields he knew nothing about!

Shadow Scholar is not just a personal confession (a confession without any hint of remorse) but a look into the cottage industry of cheating on papers. Tomar was just one of many people grinding out puffed-up written work usually just good enough to meet the bare requirements of the assignment. Many college students are repeat customers of the firms supplying this “service.” The pay is poor and the pressures to meet deadlines horrible, but, Tomar writes, “Helping students cheat was the only available job for which my college had prepared me.”

Almost as revealing as his description of the cheating business are Tomar’s observations about college today. He was a sharp kid from a non-affluent family who went to a highly competitive high school in New Jersey, and then enrolled in Rutgers primarily because it was inexpensive. His observations about what passes as “higher education” there are bitterly negative, from the required freshman writing course (which “rivals Barney the purple dinosaur as an intellectual challenge and instrument for teaching”) to a course labeled “Politics and Culture” where the professor had the students buy his own recently published book on the spy novels of John LeCarré and read five of LeCarré’s novels. 

Many of Tomar’s classmates were children from wealthy families who had coasted through high school, never finding out that they were pathetically weak in the ability to write. They came into Rutgers with a sense of entitlement—a feeling that they were too good for the courses and shouldn’t have to be bothered with Mickey Mouse stuff like writing their own papers. Besides, doing that would have taken away lots of time they wanted to spend on college fun.

It tells you a lot about Rutgers that Tomar was able to devote virtually all of his time to writing papers for his customers and still pass all of his own courses.

Among the many disturbing points is that only rarely did he get any adverse reactions from the students for whom he wrote papers. You might think that an attentive professor would be able to tell when a paper manifested only a superficial understanding of subject matter, and then return it with a comment like, “Do this over after reading the material.” Hardly ever did Tomar get such feedback. Remarkably, he did all the coursework for a doctoral student in psychology without the student ever reporting that his professors could see that the work showed only a superficial understanding of the field.

What about anti-plagiarism innovations like Turnitin? Tomar writes that he can easily defeat such measures by using an internal thesaurus. “I can change 50 percent of the words in each sentence and create an assignment that won’t raise a single red flag,” he writes.

What should college officials do?

Indiana University has recently taken the step of installing security cameras in classrooms in an effort at detecting cheating on exams. That will help some.

The authors of Cheating in College argue that school officials need to create a “culture of integrity” and even suggest a new academic position of Integrity Officer. Their idea is that cheating can be minimized if the school works to explain to students the importance of honesty and precisely where the lines between acceptable and non-acceptable lie.

That is an effort worth making and it could be one of the more important lessons many students would learn. I don’t think an Integrity Officer is the way to go about it though. Instead, top academic officials should tell faculty members that one of their key roles is to explain and enforce the rules against cheating—and that the administration will back them up.

What would help far more would be for K-12 school officials to move back to old-fashioned ideas about honesty, dropping those “progressive” notions on collaborative learning and especially on the importance of always building student self-esteem.  Far better to build good habits early than trying to break them later.