• Alex Brûlée

Is Cheating Getting Worse?

In the age of COVID, digital schools have become commonplace. I, like many, can’t complain about my new constant pajama days and late mornings, but it isn’t all sunny skies and roses. There’s the elephant in the room that no one is addressing, at least, not publicly with our school boards.

Cheating. It is now easier than ever.

But I think the reason no one is addressing it is that to be blunt, cheating is no longer taboo. Cheating hasn’t been taboo in a long time, and it only took COVID to show us how blasé students, teachers, and even parents have become with their lack of integrity. While we like to pretend that we care about the moral implications of cheating, the truth is, we don’t. Many faculty members and even students like to hound the stereotype that cheating is performed by students who are struggling in their classes or have no motivation to study, but behind closed doors, we all know it’s actually just as prevalent amongst higher achievers. Those who do care about their academic performance, and would do almost anything to maintain their prowess amongst their peers. There is no correlation between intelligence and ethics, only a correlation between unethical behavior and the likelihood of being caught. This problem is only exacerbated by our new virtual lives in quarantine.

And while I may sound like a harbinger of bad news, or someone that longs for the ‘good old days’ when people ‘had morals’, this trend is actually statistically proven. According to the New York Times in September of 2012, there is no correlation between grade performance and the likelihood of cheating- making high achievers just as vulnerable to chinks in the armor of academic integrity. According to the same article, cheating has increased almost exponentially in the U.S.’s top high schools and universities since the 1980s. The reason for the increase? More high achievers are falling prey to this addiction of re-cycling answers and checking responses online.

There are a couple of reasons why this could be. It’s standard that schools have rules about academic integrity and the consequences of violating it, but there’s the caveat that most schools fail to clarify what their definition of academic integrity is. After a recent cheating scandal in 2010, the Yale Daily News asked a survey of students what the school’s guidelines considered academically immoral. Even after the recent events, most students still did not know what Yale considered to be cheating. This is a failure no on the students but on Yale’s part. It is not the student’s job to know what is and is not considered cheating- that is something the schools disseminate.

Do you even know what your school considers to be academic dishonesty? Some students would consider checking answers online to be a step in the homework process, while others would consider it to be searching for external help. Some students think staying home from a test is better than blatantly cheating, while others argue it’s better to take a test on time with “some extra help” than stay home and take it later. Where is the line, and when will we be explicitly told when it is violated?

As a result of this cheating cacophony, definitions of what cheating is and isn’t vary depending on your click or social group. Unsurprisingly then, most high achievers don’t even consider their dishonest practices to be cheating. Many high performing students classify their dishonest methods as a ‘gray-area’ of learning and extra help, while they consider the practices of struggling students to be academically immoral.

The other problem is even if we are told what cheating is, when we do cheat, the repercussions may never be seen. In 2012, Harvard had a scandal in its freshman Introduction to Congress course in which 279 students received access to each other's answers during a take-home final exam. Let’s first address that a school like Harvard having a take-home final exam is already opening the door for academic dishonesty. That is the fault of the teacher, not the student body. But then let’s address 70% of those that cheated were forced to withdraw from the course. This is telling because the year prior when a similar scandal took place, none were forced to withdraw. Why? Because it wasn’t covered with national media attention. This shows that while Harvard did punish with social pressures, it had no inclinations to do so without it. What are the consequences then in lesser-known high schools and colleges around the country? Without the camera turned away, do we even care about cheating?

But we also can’t put the blame entirely on the academic community. This problem can also start at home. According to Pew Research Center in 2015, more than 61% of parents today say that there is no such thing as a parent being too involved in their child’s education, as compared to 52% and 51% of Gen X parents and Boomer Parents respectively. There’s a shift going on in what parents want for their children. Any good parent wants their child to be happy, but ‘happy’ is being redefined. Whereas the minority of parents see ‘happy’ as secure and with a set of good morals and honesty, more than half of parents define happiness as a success. Reading between the lines, we can see how this increase in cheating is related to this new definition of the ideal child. According to the same Pew Research study, 51% of parents say that they would be disappointed if their child got average grades in school- which frankly doesn’t add up. The average is, well, average. Most people should be receiving scores in the B- range with their own ability and study habits. But, with this newfound pressure to get A’s from home, the message is not to try harder but to do better. Punishments vary across income levels and ethnicity, but the message is the same across cultures: do better, or there will be consequences.

But how does this translate to a post-COVID education? I think it’s needless to say that with more resources to cheat and with every test basically being open-note, cheating is not a problem that is going to go away any time soon. And, honestly? That’s sad. Not just because then we can’t draw the line between who is talented and who can seem talented, but because of the psychological effects it could have on our generation. What happens when we are rewarded for lying about who we are? Sure, it opens the door for more lying in the future, but it also leaves our generation with a crippling lack of confidence. If we’re only rewarded for what we can synthetically produce and present as our own, we never learn the value of our own labor or learn what we can really do. Cheating opens the door for imposter syndrome. It begets a life of feeling like you’re only as valuable as your reputation. Not even looking at the moral implications, cheating, psychologically, isn’t good for us. And cheating is getting worse.