When Students Cheat: The Demise of Academic Integrity Threatens Us All

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Our economic system is based on integrity. The reliability of our financial systems, such as banks, insurance companies, and the stock market, depends on people keeping their word. We expect deposits to be reflected in account balances, insured property that gets damaged to be replaced, and stock purchases added to portfolios. Inescapably, when dishonorable people choose to deceive, sooner or later there is a cost. 

Today, the convenience of cheating has made it more ubiquitous on college campuses, and it will eventually cost us all. Just as the economic value of four-year degrees shows signs of declining, students are leaving college unprepared academically and ethically to enter the workforce. This threatens to diminish our culture, economy, and competitiveness. An infusion of integrity is sorely needed.

How bad could it be? Judging by an online platform called Chegg, pretty bad. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the shift to online education has unfortunately also led to online cheating through websites like Chegg. While it is not the only option available for online cheating, Chegg has set a new standard for convenience.

According to an investigation by Forbes, of 52 students interviewed who used Chegg, all but four – excluding a half dozen provided by the company – admitted they use the site to cheat. It is commonly referred to as “chegging.” These students included a broad spectrum of undergraduates and graduate students from 19 public and private universities.

Penn State professor Linda Treviño estimates that approximately two-thirds of the student population cheats in her book Cheating in College. As she notes, it is hard to get reliable information because you’re expecting an honest answer about cheating from someone who may well be dishonest. Clearly, “chegging” is a huge problem.

Tolerating widespread cheating devalues not only academia and college degrees but also the broader culture. Amy Novotney’s research published by the American Psychological Association indicates that academic cheating is a good indicator for dishonesty later in life. Dishonesty in college can be a gateway to future duplicity, such as cheating on a spouse, falsifying tax forms, and embezzling funds – none of which add to the greater good or improve the economy. While Chegg grows into a $12 billion company, the residual effects of increased cheating are eroding our collective returns.

Employers, especially small businesses, will pay the price. Hiring a college graduate once implied gaining an employee with a set of core skills advantageous to the business. Today’s “chegging” graduates, however, may find working for a living – without the convenience of cheating tools – a shocking challenge. Their struggles will have an impact on the company bottom line.

Imagine a “chegging” graduate filling your next prescription or constructing your next house or piloting your next commercial flight or conspiring against one of our nation’s potential adversaries. Clearly, the prevalence of cheating today poses serious threats to our economy, culture, and even national security.

However, remedies exist to address the convenience of online cheating.

First, our education system must ascertain an offset to cheating. In collaboration with others in academia, James Moten Jr. suggests a wide range of prevention measures, such as dissemination of a clear policy on cheating, strict test-taking timelines, surveillance, statistical analysis, and other tools.

However, none of these recommendations addresses online cheating providers like Chegg.com that are making millions. These companies must be held accountable.

Arguably, government regulation has not been effective up to now in governing the Internet – but online cheating simply must be addressed. Universities have been overwhelmed with issues and have had to turn a blind eye to the problem, but it’s time for that to change, possibly in the form of legislation. Perhaps the most effective way to hold Chegg and others involved in online cheating accountable is protecting testing information as what it is – copyrighted material. We must encourage universities and even legislators to hold companies like Chegg accountable so they stop exploiting students and leading them toward a life of diminished integrity. 

Above all, each of us should choose to live with integrity. That is a learned process. As Stephen L. Carter writes in his book Integrity, practicing this virtue depends on each person assessing all he has learned from life, choosing to do the right thing – and then doing it.

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