The decline and fall of academic probity

February 28, 2023 • 11:15 am

For a number of reasons, cheating in both high schools and colleges rose strongly during the pandemic, and continues to rise. This come from surveys of cheating (probably underestimates) as well as college’s reports of cheating (see this NPR article).

Here are some data from ProctorEdu:

Although educational institutions come up with new, stricter regulations and honor codes, academic dishonesty remains a serious cause for concern. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) gives statistics showing that, whereas in the 1940s only 20% of college students admitted to cheating, nowadays the percentage has increased to 75 – 98%. Another study, conducted by Dr. Donald McCabe in cooperation with the International Center for Academic Integrity, showed that 95% of students confessed to having cheated in some form (plagiarism, cheating on a test, etc.). This survey involved 70,000 students (both graduates and undergraduates) and was conducted for 12 years (from 2002 to 2015).


There are more data from McCabe’s study here.

Anecdotally, I’m also hearing a lot more from my colleagues about cheating in their classes, though of course that’s “lived experience”.

There are a number of reason why cheating, which includes direct cheating on tests, plagiarism, and other forms of academic dishonesty, has risen so sharply. Of course there’s ChatGPT and other bots that can write answers for you. But there’s also greater opportunity for cheating when learning and test-taking are remote, when profs allow open-book exams as well as cooperation on assignments or tests, and allow students to retake tests for higher grades. There’s also the increased entitlement of students, who now see themselves as consumers of a product and adopt a “customer is right” mentality, the general malaise of students during the pandemic, and, sadly, the fact that (or so I think) professors don’t really care that much any more. This has all led to grade inflation, so that soon every student will graduate with straight As and grade-point averages will be nearly useless as an index of merit.

All of these points are emphasized in this piece by Suzi Weiss on her sister Bari’s website, The Free Press.

Click to read:

The major flaw of the article is that Weiss relies on anecdotes and interviews, giving few statistics (which do exist). She doesn’t even cite McCabe’s study. But in the main she’s right that cheating is skyrocketing.  Here’s the “evidence”, though I’d prefer data:

For decades, campus standards have been plummeting. The hallowed, ivy-draped buildings, the stately quads, the timeless Latin mottos—all that tradition and honor have been slipping away. That’s an old story. Then Covid struck and all bets were off. With college kids doing college from their bedrooms and smartphones, and with the explosion of new technology, cheating became not just easy but practically unavoidable. “Cheating is rampant,” a Princeton senior told me. “Since Covid there’s been an increasing trend toward grade inflation, cheating, and ultimately, academic mediocrity.”

Now that students are back on campus, colleges are having a hard time putting the genie back in the bottle. Remote testing combined with an array of tech tools—exam helpers like Chegg, Course Hero, Quizlet, and Coursera; messaging apps like GroupMe and WhatsApp; Dropbox folders containing course material from years past; and most recently, ChatGPT, the AI that can write essays—have permanently transformed the student experience.

“It’s the Wild West when it comes to using emerging technologies and new forms of access to knowledge,” Gregory Keating, who has a joint appointment at USC’s Department of Philosophy and Gould School of Law, told me. “Faculties and administrations are scrambling to keep up.”

Amy Kind, a philosophy professor at Claremont McKenna, said that, at the prestigious liberal arts college just east of Los Angeles, “Cheating is a big concern among the faculty.”

What amazed me are two things: how lax the faculty are in monitoring cheating, and how clever the students are at cheating. (One site estimates that 95% of them get away with it.)

Here are four ways that students do it:

1.) When it was time for Sam Beyda, then a freshman at Columbia University, to take his Calculus I midterm, the professor told students they had 90 minutes.

But the exam would be administered online. And even though every student was expected to take it alone, in their dorms or apartments or at the library, it wouldn’t be proctored. And they had 24 hours to turn it in.

“Anyone who hears that knows it’s a free-for-all,” Beyda told me.

Beyda, an economics major, said students texted each other answers; looked up solutions on Chegg, a crowdsourced website with answers to exam questions; and used calculators, which were technically verboten.

He finished the exam in under an hour, he said. Other students spent two or three hours on it. Some classmates paid older students who had already taken the course to do it for them.

“Professors just don’t care,” he told me.

I presumed that Sam Beyda is a pseudonym, but I there is a Sam Beyda online who goes to Columbia and will graduate this year. My apologies if this is not the one mentioned above.

This next case is heinous and redounds to the professor’s laxity; it comes from a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.

2.)  This past semester, in her Intro to Accounting class, students took the midterm online—but in a proctored classroom using a browser that alerted teaching assistants if anyone navigated out of the exam in search of illicit information. To access the browser, students had to log in with an individual code given to them after they showed up for the exam.

Sounds pretty airtight.

Not so fast.

No one checked IDs to make sure the students enrolled in the class were the same students taking the final. Cheaters in the class paid fellow classmates—the ones who stayed in the proctored exam room—up to $100 to send them the codes so they could log in from outside the room, where they were free to look up information on their phones or brainstorm answers together. In case the Olds got smart and thought to track students’ IP addresses—that is, where they actually were—students reserved study rooms in the same building as the exam room, Huntsman Hall, making it appear as though they were physically there. (It’s unclear whether any proctors thought to check.)

The average on the midterm was around 80 percent. In past years, it was closer to 60 or 70 percent. “It’s not that the teachers got miraculously better at teaching the content or that the kids are smarter,” the University of Pennsylvania sophomore told me.

She added that the class was graded on a curve. “I’m getting screwed over for doing the right thing,” she said. “It’s a disadvantage not to cheat.” The student received a C on the test.

This could have easily been avoided by checking IDs. (But who would think to do that?)

3.) At Tufts, sources told me that crib sheets have gone digital, with students uploading course material to their Notes app and using their Apple watches to access information while taking tests.

This is why I was always present during exams, roaming the room. Surely you could spot students constantly looking at their watch! But how nefarious!  And, finally, this fiendishly clever method:

4.) And at Dartmouth—once the reserve of the WASPiest of the WASPs, in beautiful, cloistered Hanover, New Hampshire—an anonymous source told me that students have developed the habit of breaking into groups of four when given online multiple-choice quizzes. Each guesses a different answer (A, B, C, or D) to each question. Because students get two chances to take the quiz—why that is, no one seems to know—they all have the right answer by the time they take the quiz for a second time. And wind up with a perfect score.

They don’t even have to read the question. If you’re reading the question, you’re doing it wrong.

Well I could rant about how students are taking advantage of the system, especially remote learning, but the professors are certainly enabling this behavior, apparently because they don’t care, and also because younger and untenured faculty and instructors stand to lose if they get bad student evaluations.

But I will rant no more except to say two things. First, cheating robs the students of what college is (or was) supposed to be for: the joy of learning and being exposed to new and challenging ideas. Second, I’m glad I’m not teaching any more. Not only would I have to deal with all the above, but you have to watch what you say in class very carefully lest you get reported and disciplined. (This isn’t so much the case at the University of Chicago.)

UPDATE: Apropos of the last paragraph, reader Roger just informed me of this article in Reason magazine (click to read):

25 thoughts on “The decline and fall of academic probity

  1. I’ve been out of classroom teaching for years now, so this development is news to me. Consider the astounding prevalence of student cheating, plus the takeover of academia by the grievance studies mentality, plus this quote from a recent FIRE study: “Overall, young liberal faculty members clearly stand out as more illiberal than their peers”. Add it all up, and perhaps we are finally arriving at the forecast Untergang des Abendlandes.
    [At least in the US, which is more abendland than the other side of the Atlantic.]

  2. The going-under of the evening-land indeed! In addition to the other problems in our universities is the issue, over the last several decades, of grade inflation, as well as the ever-increasing number of absurdly-overpaid administrators, not to mention the little-noted fact that the demographic profile in the Class of 2026 at Stanford and the Ivies does not “look like America”, to use that too often repeated phrase.

  3. I teach fully in-person classes, with the same layers of security that I’ve always had at my Mid-Sized University in the Midwest. Exam questions are different, year by year. I use at least 3 different forms, and the questions are well scrambled. I watch them like a hawk. I had one cheating incident last fall (they won’t be back), but that was not unusual in terms of rates of cheating. I know about smart watches, ear buds, and the other tricks.
    Exam averages (and final grades) have not improved. In fact, they have gotten worse. So I see no evidence that most students are somehow cheating more, or are using ringers to take exams, since one would expect that scores would get better and not worse. Also, given the claim for a significantly higher rate of cheating I should be catching more cheaters even if most escape my eyes and ears.

    1. Well, this cheating behavior could force schools to use the same approach as for people boarding planes: taking your watch and shoes off, show your wallet, leave any hand luggage, jackets, etc.

    2. This is similar to my experience. I write my own exams (never those provided by textbook publishers), scramble questions and answers, and have seen no dramatic increase in scores, more likely a drop, but see an acceptable distribution.

      But cheating now is easier than ever and the incentives for cheating (and faculty allowing students to cheat) are strong. If it has increased, which I do not doubt, part of the reason is low reading comprehension. Students can’t answer questions they cannot comprehend and reading scores among U.S. HS graduates are abysmal.

  4. There is another approach. My youngest daughter (who is of course English) recently completed a three-year course in Viticulture at Florence University in Italy. There were thirty-odd modules during that time, and each one concluded with an oral examination (in Italian) by a panel of professors.

    This rather Socratic system seemed to work effectively, even for technical subjects such as biochemistry, economics or vine pathogens. It is applied in all sorts of academic courses, and there is no evidence that graduates from Italian universities are any less skilled and proficient than those from elsewhere.

    Worth a thought.

  5. If it were written in a book, I would consider it unbelievable . But apparently it is real.
    One could argue that being good at cheating and using the internet and social media are useful skills in themselves. But I think one needs a good formal education to separate the chaff from the seed. And cheating is not conductive to a good formal education. This rampant cheating may – but not necessarily does- lead to a downward spiral of corruption.
    Corruption nearly inevitably leads to destruction of whatever its environment, its victim, is.

  6. If the cheaters expended as much of their talent on learning as they do on finding ways to cheat, they wouldn’t need to cheat. Ninety-five percent is an awful number.

    Professors don’t want to spend their time and energy chasing down cheaters. It’s terribly stressful and easier to look the other way, sadly.

    1. It’s worse if you do track them down. Hours of time proving the cheating to some disciplinary body, often followed by appeals. And in many cases you effectively become the accused.

    2. Something else to consider is that many of those delivering courses and administering the evaluations are sessional faculty and really have no job security. This can discourage efforts to root out cheating, especially when you consider just how much work it is and how little sessionals get paid. And as Jerry says, you’re always worried about bad student assessments and what effect this will have on whether or not you’ll get your next contract.

  7. Hmmm: Columbia, Princeton, Penn, USC, Boston U, Cornell, Tufts, Claremont McKenna, Dartmouth, CUNY, UCLA, Yale. Even if we assume that the anecdotes reflect actual increases in cheating, I wonder whether status-conscious places are representative of all students and professors.

    Perhaps it is just “kids these days”, but I expect future upticks in professional dishonesty across fields if, indeed, cheating is at such high levels in such prestigious places. I’ll leave it to others to suss out any cultural causes and implications.

  8. I’m fascinated by the comments about “the professors” ignoring this. Why expect that significant responsibility for policing this should devolve onto professors? Sure, we can do our bit to monitor in-class participation and in-class tests, but Jerry’s post indicates ‘our bit’ is nowhere near enough. Lacking expertise in increasingly sophisticated tech, many of us haven’t the skill to do further policing. As others here have noted, if we want to get serious about policing cheating then examining needs to take place outside the classroom, and it needs to be done by independent invigilators with technical expertise to control the environment, to monitor the participation, and to discover the cheating. The exam conditions for the SAT and GRE are a start.

    One effect of the increase in cheating is already evident — it is becoming difficult for students to get letters of recommendation because too many of their teachers simply don’t know them well enough to write honest support.

  9. It’s not just students who view themselves as customers, it’s parents and university administration. Faculty are disincentivised from failing students because it reflects badly on their programs (and their funding). Long gone are the days of my first-year physics class, where the professor proudly boasted at the beginning of the course that most of us would fail.

    Having said that, I wonder whether part of the problem is the reliance on invigilated exams as a means of assessing student learning. It is easier to set and mark the same exam every year but given current and developing technology, that just provides a temptation for students to cheat in various ways Someone above mentioned oral exams, but I’ve found that incremental assessments – where you can see the progression of the student’s thoughts – is more effective and easier to detect cheating (not foolproof, but short of one-on-one tutoring I don’t think any method is foolproof).

  10. Each individual (or university!) “has the power to suspend, evade, corrupt or subvert his perception of reality, but not the power to escape the existential and psychological disasters that follow.” — Ayn Rand, 1973

  11. With regard to comment #12: the exam conditions for the SAT and GRE are so rigorous
    in preventing cheating that more and more programs are dropping the requirement for these very exams. Not to worry. The advanced and professional programs will thus have the opportunity to look more like America (as the phrase goes) in all respects, including the normalization of bunkum. Just a little further contribution to the untergang.

  12. From a recent ad in my Facebook feed:

    “Our team of experienced professionals are here to take your online classes for you, ensuring that you never fall behind or miss an assignment. We understand that managing online classes can be challenging, especially if you have other responsibilities like work or family.

    “With our online class-taking services, you can focus on the things that matter most to you while we handle the rest. Our team will attend all your classes, participate in discussions, and complete all assignments and quizzes on time, guaranteeing that you receive the grades you deserve.

    “At, we take pride in providing our clients with personalized attention and support. We work with you to understand your academic goals and develop a customized plan to help you achieve them. We offer affordable pricing and a money-back guarantee, so you can rest assured that you’re getting the best value for your money.”

    I’m just gonna linger on the phrase “the grades you deserve” …

  13. This is just depressing. I left university 25 years ago and never saw any evidence of cheating. It just wasn’t a thing that students talked about, at all. I never even dreamed of cheating, it just didn’t enter my thoughts. So either I was in a particularly honest cohort of students (unlikely), or things have nosedived dramatically in 25 years.

    The most depressing aspect of this is that students are almost compelled to cheat if they want good grades. Everybody else is (apparently) doing it, so unless you want crap grades relative to your ability, you have to join in.

    This worries me as my daughters are going off to university soon. My eldest goes in September, and my youngest the year after. I talk to them a lot about their academic work, and I know they would never cheat on their high school exams or essays. It’s just not on their radar. To think they are going to have to cheat to keep up is just awful.

    1. Fifty years ago (!) there was an Organic Chemistry lab exercise in which we had to use differential solubility to separate benzoic acid from benzophenone in a separation funnel. The lab demonstrators scored our technique by how sharp our melting points were, recognizing that we were clumsy students who had never done this exercise before. CSI crime-lab techs we were not. The marks were mostly for showing how much you understood the theory and technique in your lab write-up. You got a couple of extra points for purity.*

      A week or so afterward, the word went round that “a few” students had been caught cheating. They had purchased benzoic acid USP from a drug store and submitted a few crystals of it as their lab product. The demis picked it up instantly because it was far purer than a crude student project could produce. The penalties were dire: the miscreants were failed and put on probation and all the medical schools they would be applying to were notified.

      A couple of years later I mentioned this story to a med school classmate who had done his undergrad in another province. He laughed and said, “They told us that story happened at my university, too. It’s been making the rounds for decades!”

      That is the only episode of “cheating” I was ever aware of. There were term-paper services that advertised in the student newspaper. A “stock” paper was cheap. A custom-written one that a prof likely hadn’t seen before was quite a bit more. The ads ran all the time I was there, so some people must have used them. But not for Organic Chemistry.
      * I actually rather liked that exercise and it was quite relevant to pharmacology later. When Richard Pryor set himself on fire free-basing cocaine with ether, I understood exactly what he was doing.

  14. Point of information request: why do Professors grade on the curve? If they didn’t, wouldn’t honest students simply pass, and never mind the others?

  15. It would be interesting to know if there has been a concomitant increase in cheating and dishonesty in society as a whole. There is nothing new about politicians, businessmen/women, corporations, the media, campaigners, etc, etc playing fast and loose with the truth in ways both large and small. From time to time the dishonest get caught out but students can doubtless see that cheats often prosper and reason that it’s a reliable route to success. I do not suggest that this in any way excuses cheating (which I agree is depressing and deplorable) but it perhaps indicates that the problem exists rather more widely than just on university campuses.

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