Many colleges and universities in the U.S. are facing an unprecedented crisis in enrollment, with enrollment rates declining for the eighth consecutive year, and the consequences are seen all over higher education. Sometimes they manifest in unexpected ways; one development is that attitudes toward academic dishonesty — cheating and plagiarism — are trending in favor of students.
In a nation that treats higher education as a product and colleges as businesses, many students and parents logically see themselves as customers who deserve to be satisfied. The shrinking pool of students for some universities reduces the incentives to give failing grades, even for academic dishonesty. Some faculty I’ve spoken to, combined with my own recent experiences as a professor, suggest that attempting to punish cheating and plagiarism is not exactly encouraged. Every campus is different. At some, so-called honor codes (codes of student conduct that outline forbidden behaviors) are taken very seriously. At others, the prevailing attitude is to let students off with a warning. At a private university, I found that dishonesty was generally taken seriously, whereas at very large public institutions (subject to political pressure from state legislatures and parent-voters) my sense was that the process was designed to dole out wrist-slaps.
Cheating and plagiarism are, bluntly, extremely common in college — as many readers may know from personal experience. Data on this topic is hard to come by since people are hesitant to admit to bad behavior even in an anonymous poll. But as much as three-quarters of students engage in some kind of academic dishonesty as undergraduates. Graduate programs are not immune, and even some college faculty admit (anonymously) their own experiences cheating and plagiarizing as undergrads.
Plagiarism, whether it involves failure to cite sources or the cruder variety in which students copy-paste entire written works, is now easy to detect thanks to software like TurnItIn, which compares papers against a database of previously submitted work, but the market for submitting original papers that someone else wrote is exploding. So-called “shadow scholars” charge high prices to write research papers for students. Even if a professor is suspicious, there is essentially no way of proving that a paper was written by someone else as long as it is original. This kind of “contract cheating” is facilitated by social media; for example, students who Tweet about having difficulties with a paper can find themselves receiving multiple messages from strangers offering to write a paper for cash.
It is very difficult to point at the world in which we live today and claim with a straight face that cheaters never prosper.
Faculty are not dumb, and most cheating and plagiarism is obvious. A suspiciously well-written paper or a noticeable change in writing style within a paper stand out. Likewise, if a student cheats during an in-class exam it is usually clumsily — sometimes comically — easy to see. Students may perceive that they are “getting away with it” but it is more likely that faculty decide it is more trouble than it is worth to intervene.
Many years ago I taught American Government courses at a large public school and, in one of my first exams in a basic intro class, I saw three students engaging in the least subtle cheating I’ve ever seen outside of a movie. They were literally passing their exams back and forth to one another during the test; both my TAs and I were amused and amazed. It was like watching the Three Stooges cheat. I collected their exams and told them that they would be failing the test, in accordance with university policy. This didn’t seem to bother them in the least.
When I told my fellow professors, several hinted that I was in for a surprise when dealing with the university’s bureaucracy. And I was. The three students appealed and a university-sponsored committee of students and faculty quickly ruled in their favor, as I presented no “evidence” that the students cheated (the word of faculty and graduate teaching assistants apparently did not count). What “evidence” could any faculty member provide in that situation? Drone footage? Signed confessions? I realized that the process was designed to let the students slide. The trio no doubt knew — possibly from prior experience — what the outcome would be. That’s why they didn’t bother trying to hide what they did.
In this sense, the university-as-business paradigm provides students with benefits (although it doesn’t offer useful options like “low tuition” and “graduating without crushing debt”). Rampant grade inflation has accompanied the steep rise in tuitions and the replacement of permanent faculty with low-paid temporary labor. College grades are now all but meaningless, leaving graduate programs to focus ever more on standardized test scores — widely recognized as imperfect measures at best, discriminatory at worst — for admissions.
In students’ defense, cheating and plagiarism are perfectly rational in an environment in which they know, or strongly suspect, they face few consequences even if caught. Research also shows that college cheating is highly correlated with high school cheating (and getting away with it). In that respect, students are merely continuing to do what they’ve been rewarded for in the past.
It is very difficult to point at the world in which we live today and claim with a straight face that cheaters never prosper. From American politics to the widely-publicized college admissions scandal earlier this year, the message that everyone cheats and it’s fine is hard to miss. Universities put faculty in the position of enforcing some kind of standards of academic honesty in a system in which everything is pushing against it. Students and parents look at the staggering cost of higher education and, not entirely unreasonably, expect that universities should unconditionally hand over a diploma in return.
Cheating is notable for its universality, from overachieving Type A students terrified of getting an A-minus to students who think it is their only hope of getting through a course. Many students clearly have internalized the admissions scandal’s message that everyone is doing it and only the naïve wouldn’t. Others believe in the more traditional sense of what higher education is, but use plagiarism and cheating as a way to keep afloat. Still other students are just there to party and don’t feel like doing class stuff. It really does run the gamut, and there is no easy fix.
One professor at a large public school told me, “We are expected to treat the students like children who don’t know any better, but it’s hard to believe that 20 year olds don’t know [not to cheat].” At the same time, a private liberal arts college professor says, “higher ed keeps watering down the value of a college degree anyway. It feels pointless to be the Integrity Police in a system like this.” There is equal frustration with the tendency of outsiders to defend students by infantilizing them, as if “adults in their twenties have never heard that it is against the rules to bring a cheat sheet into a test,” one instructor at an elite school told me.
Faculty, like adult college students, know right from wrong and can recognize cheating and plagiarism among the latter. The widespread nature of academic dishonesty isn’t due to the incredibly stealthy cheating skills of the modern undergrad. It stems from a prevailing attitude that higher education is just another product and college is a straightforward exchange of dollars for a degree. Faculty recognize the incentives and disincentives offered at their respective institutions and respond accordingly, a rational but depressing reinforcement of the “Fuck it, nothing matters” attitude that is quickly becoming the zeitgeist of this era.