Why Do College Students Cheat? (And How Can We Stop Them?)

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Honor code or no honor code, high school students cheat. Even colleges and universities cheat on their SAT score reports. So who out there is shocked to hear that cheating is widespread among college and college-bound students? (Cue the crickets.) But according to a new book, contemporary cheating is markedly different from the kind of academic dishonesty that came before — and that is cause for worry.

The good news is that fewer college students self-report cheating behavior like plagiarism these days — from 74 percent of students in 1990 to 65 percent in 2010. But that doesn’t mean that this is a problem that’s going away.

According to Cheating in College:  Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About About It, recently published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, today’s cheaters don’t tend to consider that cheating is wrong. (This sentiment echoes what the Fishbowl found when we asked local honor students about their experience in our story Honoring the Honor Code.) Pulling quotes from Wikipedia and sharing answers on a take-home exam don’t really “count” as cheating, according to today’s students, the researchers found. “Many have convinced themselves that what they are doing is not cheating,” the authors told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “They have rationalized their choices, leaving no moral implications left to consider. While they have a sense that some of the activities they are engaging in are morally questionable in the abstract, for any number of reasons (parental pressure, others are doing it and they are being unfairly disadvantaged, etc.) they have convinced themselves that they have no choice.”

“Each year I get lower and lower indications of cheating going on, but at the same time I’m getting fewer and fewer students responding to my surveys,”  co-author Donald McCabe, who’s been studying cheating for decades, told the JHU Hub. “I believe cheating is as much of a problem as it has always been. Students just don’t want to talk about it.”

Unsurprisingly, the authors concluded that high-pressure high school environments spurs students to start cheating early. One way to shore up standards of honesty in high schools is to make sure that standards for honesty are just as high as academic standards, the authors point out.

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