Cheating in College
I’ve been teaching at the university level for over forty years, and allegations of wide spread cheating and plagiarism make front-page headlines every few years. Recently Harvard found itself in the news when 125 undergraduates were accused of cheating on a take-home exam. Donald McCabe of Rutgers University who has been monitoring student cheating since 1990 reported in an article in Time that in a 2010-2011 survey 62% undergraduates admitted to cheating on exams or term paper.
I believe that this number- 62% of the students cheat or plagiarize- is somewhat of an exaggeration, and has to be put into proper context. Yes, I know from my years in the classroom that students will and do cheat. But, and this is an important but, it’s not the case that 62% of all students are cheating all the time. True, the disappointing fact is that lots of students have at least once cut a few corners, sought out inappropriate help, got someone to finish an assignment for them, paraphrased more words than is usually allowed, or faked a footnote or two. But my experience in the classroom does not lead me to believe that the majority of students are cheating all the time. And it is not the case that teachers have to be constantly on guard and in an adversarial relationship with their students.
I think that what is much more interesting to learn about is not the “exact number” of students who cheat, but why students cheat! My experience has been that at one level students cheat for all sorts of pedestrian reasons: not being properly prepared, issues of time management, the raw fear of failure. And then there are darker and more alarming reasons why students cheat.
Unfortunately, a lot of students cheat because they don’t take college seriously. They feel that they are there, because they have to be to get a job, and get on with their lives. I think that too many college students are totally booked with the academic part of the university experience. And, because they are bored, as Donald McCabe suggests, they feel that “they can make their own rules.” College for too many students is about social contacts, future business contacts, or just plain fun before they are slowed down by the responsibilities of adult life. Consequently, it they are bored and their interests really lie elsewhere, cheating makes sense.
I think all universities and colleges need to address this issue. When I was an undergraduate, (just after Guttenberg developed moveable type) cheating of any kind meant you were automatically dismissed from the university. End of issue! I know it sounds Draconian, and it is! I really don’t think it we should reinitiate this kind of policy. But I do know we have to do something. We need to change the college culture. And, perhaps the place to start is to remind our students that no matter how much money their family has, college is a privilege and not an entitlement. Nor should college simply be seen as a job fair. It’s about character formation. And do they really want to cheat on that?