Are the recent spate of cheating scandals in some of the most prestigious schools in the country an exception to the rule, or are they just the most visible symptom of a fairly wide-spread illness? The New York Times looks at the findings of several recent studies and concludes that, far from being an occasional lapse, cheating is something that a majority of students of all educational levels have engaged in over their academic careers. And according to the experts, the problem has been getting worse.
The reasons behind the trend are as simple to identify as they're difficult to solve. People who have looked into the problem say that the growing number of cheaters can be attributed to lax parental supervision and the fact that cheating has simply been getting easier as more students get access to high-performing gadgetry like smartphones and tablets. Without constantly reinforced messages from parents and educators that cheating is wrong, kids are more apt to look at it as less of a moral issue and more as a semi-legitimate way of getting a leg-up on competition.
"I don't think there's any question that students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students, and that's abetted by the adults around them," said Donald L. McCabe, a professor at the Rutgers University Business School, and a leading researcher on cheating.
"There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive," he said. "But more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive."
Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard who has been studying cheating for the past two decades, says that today's students' "ethical muscles have atrophied" due to a societal focus on success rather than the process by which it is attained. In light of that, it's hardly surprising that even the high-achievers aren't immune from the temptation.
He said the attitude he has found among students at elite colleges is: "We want to be famous and successful, we think our colleagues are cutting corners, we'll be damned if we'll lose out to them, and some day, when we've made it, we'll be role models. But until then, give us a pass."
Although studies have shown that institutions that place high value on academic integrity and then back up their commitment by continually sending out the message that cheating is unacceptable and will be punished report lower rates of academic dishonesty, few schools seem willing to take these steps, leading to an impression in students' minds that those in charge don't really care about enforcing the rules that they set.
This kind of mindset could be behind the recent cheating scandal that saw 120 students in one of Harvard's introductory government courses being investigated for cheating on a take-home exam.