Cheating Through College: Rational or Not ?

One of the most fundamentally ethical decisions college students face is the whether or not to cheat when faced with the opportunity. Cheating is a topic that elicits passion amongst undergraduates mainly because a large proportion has committed academic dishonesty or has witnessed someone doing so. The truth is cheating is widespread throughout college campuses across the nation and is a trend that continues to grow. McCabe and Treviño conducted a study in 1997 that showed an increased in the most explicit forms of cheating on tests and written assignments from a similar study conducted by Bowers in 1964 [1]. So why is such a scrutinized action prevailing in institutions committed to scholarly excellence?

The Role of Technology

Technology plays a part in these growing trends. Cheating today isn’t as difficult as it once was. Rather, modern cheating methods have become more sophisticated and available for all academic fields. Many students easily find unauthorized resources through the web. Students are often finding homework answers in the form of online study groups or seeking the resource of their peers from social networking sites in order to gain knowledge about previous exams they may have taken. What is astounding is the effort that some people take to convert cheating into a business. A simple search on “academic cheating” on YouTube leads to over 3000 homemade videos on innovative methods of cheating. These short five minute videos are equipped with a title page, credits page, soundtrack, stepwise instructions and demonstrations, all the proper elements of a skillful and informative how-to video. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much effort to discover an online website offering to write your papers for a fee. Just last November, “Ed Dante” came out with an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education claiming to have helped thousands of graduate students by writing their papers, assignments, exams and even doctoral theses [2]. “Ed” claims to have written on even the most specific topics including a doctorate in cognitive psychology. By simply Google-ing his topics, “Ed” was able to teach himself the necessary knowledge needed to complete another student’s work [2].  As technology advances, these dishonest acts continue to increase in magnitude and sophistication.

Cheating: A Time Management Device?

The development of this cheating mentality has deep roots in the academic environments in which potential cheaters find themselves. Based on the Social Learning Theory proposed by Bandura, peer actions serve as strong forms of persuasion [3]. Students observe cheating among their classmates and not only can they mimic their techniques, but also develop the mindset that these practices are accepted. As students observe more events of academic dishonesty, they are progressively more convinced that it is the social norm.

But why are students compelled to cheat in the first place? Today’s college students often don’t need to cheat. Cheating is no longer only employed for basic academic survival. Rather, many students are simply cheating because they are too lazy to put in the effort that the results of cheating so easily provide. Collaborative cheating is a prime model. Not all participants in a study group equally contribute. Instead, it is far more commonplace that in a group of 10 students, only three or so put in the requisite effort to comprehend and analyze the problem at hand in order to complete an assignment. The rest are simply there to reap the benefits of these students’ hard work. Studies have found that students often cheat in “required classes”–classes that student must take in order to graduate [4]. Here, students are simply disinterested in the course’ subject matter and are thus unwilling to put in the effort to learn the material. Cheating is an easy path towards course completion, one that doesn’t require much time and effort. Students rationalize that they can better spend the save time on their major requirements while utilizing cheating as a tool to complete college requirements [5]. When taking courses actually relevant to their majors, students are more typically compelled to complete the work honestly because they are interested in the topics presented and realize that mastery of such material is fundamental to the development of their careers and their major studies.

Is Cheating a Rational Option?

Cheating is considered wrong mainly because it leaves the honest students at a disadvantage. This is one of the greatest ironies about cheating in college. The argument against cheating implicitly states that non-cheaters are the ones left behind. However, this is certainly not true. In fact, a substantial portion of cheaters are those who are disadvantaged. We all know life isn’t fair and education is certainly no exception. All of us grew up in different situations with different educational backgrounds. Some had the privilege of attending the highest ranked high schools in the nation and lived under the motivation of supportive parents. Others attended the only public schools available and dealt with family and personal issues that distracted them from their academic pursuits. When we arrive at college we come with various educational levels, fundamentally different degrees of knowledge that will affect our performance throughout all four years of college. Given these different starting points, some disadvantaged students may be compelled to cheat in order to rise to the same level as privileged students. Cheating may be one of the ways we make up for our disadvantages; it provides us with some control to compensate for the uncontrollable aspects of our lives.

But why are we so compelled to fix our disadvantages in the first place? The main reason lies in the modern world’s competitive atmosphere. The world hosts a lot more people than it once did, and we now know a lot more than we once did. Together these two factors fuel the need for progress. College students are starting to adapt the mentality of the business world [1]. This is expected, as college ultimately serves as preparation for life in the “real world”. The standards of yesterday are no match for those needed today. A perfect 4.0 GPA simply isn’t enough. You need to be active in clubs. Simply joining isn’t an option either, you must exhibit leadership; you must thrive to gain a presidential position. But let’s face it–there is just simply not enough room for all of us to succeed in such positions. Hence, due to competition for coveted positions in law, business, medicine, and other areas, students are under the pressure to succeed; they accomplish this by taking advantage of anything that can possibly give them an edge.  Cheating remains one of the easiest ways to gain that edge.

The Aftermath of Cheating

In nature, cheaters in altruistic social groups often damage the integrity of their species for personal benefit. Likewise, cheating in the academic world damages our society’s progress. Academic dishonesty ultimately minimizes knowledge in a subject matter. Without putting in the effort to complete assignments or write exams, tasks that are designed to help us to approach problems analytically, we fail to fully comprehend the course material. Consequently, when we arrive at similar problems in our careers we will be incapable of completing the task because we never developed the fundamental skills in the first place. Thus, cheating allows unqualified individuals into the career field, a situation that is damaging to our progress.

Many schools have adopted an honor code in an attempt to deter such activity. However, the mere presence of an honor code will not stop cheating; rather, the school must develop a culture that expresses the themes embedded within the code [1]. McCabe and Treviño found that the school with lowest cheating rates actually lacked an honor code [1]. However, on this campus faculty frequently and clearly stated their intolerance of cheating and the serious consequences that may result. Contrary to expectations, the school with the highest cheating rates actually possessed a 100 year long honor code. The difference between the two colleges was simply the implementation of the basis of honor codes. The college with the highest cheating rates did not effectively incorporate the beliefs of the honor code within the student body [1]. Thus, to combat cheating academic communities must be active in expressing the essentials of the honor code through clear discussions of academic dishonesty in courses and swift punishment when students are caught.

Cheating will likely remain embedded within the academic world. As long as grades and admissions remain our biggest priority, this easy approach to success will continue to prevail and will do so with inevitable consequences.


[1] Butterfield K, McCabe D, Treviño L. Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research. Ethics and Behavior. 2001; 11(3): 219-232.

[2] Dante, Ed. “The Shadow Scholar – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.”Home – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 04 Mar. 2011. <>.

[3] Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[4] Carpenter D, Finelli C, Harding T, Mayhew M, Passow H. Factors Influencing Engineering Student’s Decisions To Cheat By Type Of Assessment. Research in Higher Education. 2006; 47(6): 643-684.

[5] Klein H, Levenburg N, McKendall M, Mothersel W. Cheating During the College Years: How do Business School Students Compare? Journal of Business Ethics. 2007; 72: 197-206.

Nancy is a junior at Cornell University. Join The Triple Helix Online on Facebook. Follow The Triple Helix  Online on Twitter.