As professors sit down to grade mid-term exams, it's time for some to play their least favorite role: cop. With surveys finding that up to three-quarters of college students cheat, faculty and administrators are making a bigger push for integrity. What most still lack, however, is a compelling moral argument against cheating.
A growing number of universities have enacted honor codes, but many of these codes -- along with campus efforts to publicize them -- fail to make a strong case for why cheating is wrong. Often they invoke fuzzy ideals of honor or, conversely, dwell on the negative consequences for cheaters who are caught. Neither approach gets very far, not these days.
Honor, with its emphasis on doing the right thing for its own sake, is no match for the anxious cynicism of many college students. This point was driven home to me by a junior I met in North Carolina. Why not cheat, he argued, given how many of America's most successful people cut corners to get where they are? Cheating is how the real world works, he said. Look at the politicians who lie or the sluggers who take steroids, or the CEOs who cook the books. The student also pointed to the hurdles he faced as he tried to get ahead: high tuition costs, heavy student loans, low-paying jobs without benefits. America wasn't a fair place for kids like him, so it made sense to try to level the playing field by bending a few rules.
Many young people take this bleak view. A 2008 poll of high school students found that 59 percent agreed that "successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating." Young people believe in honor and value integrity; they also worry that living by these beliefs could mean ending up as a loser. In justifying her cheating, one student told a researcher: "Good grades can make the difference between going to medical school and being a janitor." Few professors have a ready retort to this logic.
Appeals to self-interest only worsen the problem. If you tell a student that she shouldn't cheat because she might get caught, or that she's "just cheating herself" by not learning the material, or that integrity is an asset in life to be cultivated, she might respond - as the student I met in North Carolina did - by spelling out the ways that successful cheating could advance one's self-interest, especially if "everybody else" is doing it.
Students with a strong sense of right and wrong, learned early in life, may be more willing to sacrifice personal advancement for the sake of their values. Some research has shown, for instance, that students with a theistic outlook are less likely to cheat. But most colleges aren't in the position to reshape students' character at this level. Likewise, our universities have limited influence over the broader socioeconomic trends that help fuel cheating, such as rising economic inequality and increasing middle-class insecurity.
What can faculty and administrators do to stem epidemic cheating? Their best hope is to cast cheating as an issue of justice.
Students may be cynical about what it takes to succeed these days, but they do care about fairness. And cheating is nothing if not unfair. Cheaters get rewards they don't deserve, like scholarships, admission to college or grad school, internships, and jobs. Cheating is the antithesis of equal opportunity: the notion that we all should have a fair shot at success and that the people who get rewarded are the people who deserve those rewards because they worked the hardest.
Many students understand that the ideal of equal opportunity is threatened in an era of rising inequality. Quite a few say they want to do something about this. Anticheating efforts offer a way to build, on campus, a microcosm of the kind of society they want to live in -- one with a level playing field for all. I've met many students who see this and many who are organizing to fight cheating.
Maybe academic integrity will never become a great campus cause. But if faculty can cast this issue as a matter of justice, and empower students to take action, perhaps some day they won't have to spend so much time playing cop.
Note: This article was adapted and updated from an op-ed piece I published in the Christian Science Monitor in 2006.