Do Colleges Care About Student Cheating?

Why does academic integrity rarely end up on the front burner? The problem, in a nutshell, is the lack of incentives for anyone to take this on.
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The huge cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida may have shocked some observers, but the crisis of academic integrity is hardly news. Surveys have revealed for years that between two-thirds and three-quarters of college students cheat. Countless media stories have reported on the problem. And, if you pay attention, you'll notice that a new campus cheating scandal pops up every few months.

Student cheating corrupts the most sacred ideals of higher education, particularly the notion of a meritocracy of talent. Yet, strangely, this pervasive problem never rises to become a first-tier issue on campuses. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that most university leaders do not focus much attention on academic integrity issues. So many students cheat, and get away with cheating, because -- in effect -- schools let them. That's a strong charge. But it is based on my innumerable conversations with faculty, staff, and students on more than eighty college campuses in thirty states.

Typically, I'm brought to a campus to give a lecture by a dean or a faculty member or maybe a student leader who is working on the cheating problem and cares about it. And what I hear, again and again from my hosts, is that integrity issues are not a top priority of the university leadership. Nor of the faculty as a whole.

The low rates at which cheating students are caught and punished is the strongest evidence of complacency. If a typical large state university with 20,000 students has a cheating problem that is close to the national average -- with, say, 70 percent of students admitting to some cheating -- that means that 14,000 students will likely have cheated in the previous year. Yet it is rare for even the biggest student judicial system to handle more than a few hundred cases each year. A few dozen cases is more common. In other words, cheaters have a statistically negligible chance of getting busted at a large school -- odds that students well understand.

Why do universities tolerate this epidemic of cheating? Well, the problem is not that administrators and faculty don't care about cheating. They do. Talk to any professor and they'll tell you that dealing with cheating is one of the worst parts of their jobs -- leading to anxiety, anger, sadness, or a sense of betrayal. Talk to any dean and they'll say that adjudicating these cases is a huge hassle and in some cases can be a nightmare if athletes, legacy kids, or litigious parents are involved. And, of course, no university president wants their school to end up in the news for a cheating scandal.

Given all this, why does academic integrity rarely end up on the front burner? The problem, in a nutshell, is the lack of incentives for anyone to take this on.

Let's start at the top. University presidents have few reasons to focus on student cheating. Many of these leaders -- along with the trustees that supervise them -- are fixated with moving their schools up in the ratings criteria used by U.S. News and World Report. These criteria include financial resources, competitiveness of admissions, quality of incoming students, student retention rate, and faculty credentials. Academic integrity isn't on the list.

Faculty also have few incentives to take action to curb cheating. Faculty are judged by their publishing, their service work, and their teaching evaluations. They are not judged by how many cheaters they bust every semester, or how well they proctor exams or how often they update test questions. Indeed, dealing with cheating only takes time away from more important work -- and may invite retaliation by students on teaching evaluations. As I have explained elsewhere, faculty often do not feel supported when they go after cheaters.

Faculty are also often resistant to steps needed to reduce cheating -- such as the time-consuming service work that is required to update an honor system or the creation of a centralized judicial process that reduces faculty autonomy in resolving cheating cases.

To be sure, there are bright spots. I have been to schools where the commitment on academic integrity is deep and strong, and goes right up to the top, as well as beyond, to the board and alums. But these tend to be exceptions.

Because nobody on campus has an incentive to attack cheating, the resources needed to really take on this problem are rarely available. But make no mistake: there are solutions to cheating that work.

We cannot and we will not dismantle the cheating culture on America's campuses without a much bigger investment of resources and a much larger focus of leadership attention. In turn, none of that will happen until administrators and faculty have stronger incentives to take action.

How do we create those incentives? That will be the subject of a future post. But here's a hint: It's time for state and national public officials to get involved.

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