• Overwhelming pressure to succeed
  • Technology makes it expedient 
  • Tasks seem meaningless

Students have many rationalizations as to why they cheat and these are just a few common ones.

Unfortunately for college professors and administrators, as many as 60% of college students admit to cheating according to the International Center for Academic Integrity. 

This is a significant issue for college campuses. Character and integrity are important components of college missions, as future leaders are educated to create and lead a just world. Additionally, fairness is critical when students are evaluated in relation to their peers through graded work. For an institution to have credibility, its outcomes (student grades and achievements) must be based on a strong foundation.

Why should this matter to parents? Consequences can be extreme for students found responsible for violating academic integrity policies. The most common violations involve plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, and cheating on exams. Sanctions can range from a grade reduction for the assignment, a failing grade, or failing the class. 

In extreme cases, or when students have had multiple offenses, they could face suspension from school and transcript notations reflecting such. Worse, those professors who write evaluations or dole out internships have sway over a student’s reputation and opportunities.

Before taking the moral high ground, I encourage parents to put things in perspective. I remember a stellar project I submitted in sixth grade about the state of Arizona – copied verbatim from the World Book Encyclopedia. Of course, I changed a few words here and there to “make the work my own.” 

In my experience as a college administrator responsible for handling student misconducts, and tangentially, academic misconduct, I personally found that students seldom framed their cheating as morally suspect. Sure, they would state that they knew it was wrong, “but…” And what came next was often a very detailed justification for their actions. 

In one extreme example, a student, who broke into a professor’s office and stole an exam said he was justified because of the pressure his parents had put on him to succeed (If in doubt, it’s always the parent’s fault!). Whether you’re currently dealing with cheating consequences of a student or are having proactive conversations with them, it’s important to understand the nuanced world and students’ reasoning. 

Here are a few ways students have justified their actions and what you can do about it.

1. I was too busy.
This is one of the most common reasons students present when pressed. It is a way to shift blame onto circumstances and is a convenient catch-all that the ends justify the means. Students often grouse, not incorrectly, that professors think their classes are the only ones/best ones/most important ones and that they pile on the work. Taking four or five classes, working or interning, or participating in activities and a social life as well as napping can create a time crunch and lots of stress. The pressure can be tremendous, and the stakes (grades, graduate school, careers) are high. Most students who cheat are taking shortcuts and don’t view those as wrong as much as ways to survive. 

2.  It was sloppy scholarship and not technically cheating.
Speaking of shortcuts… Students often cite their intentions versus their actions to make their violations defensible. This may fall under the “I-didn’t-know” umbrella. They may write notes in their book for an open-book test, paraphrase pieces they have read online, or ask a student from another section of the course to tell them what was on the test. In many of these instances, students will blame the instructors: 

  • “They knew we would have notes.” 
  • “Of course we will paraphrase – they do it all the time.” 
  • “If they don’t want us to ask other people about the tests make them different for each section.” 

It is not uncommon for on-campus social organizations to keep past exams on file. Again, students will blame the professors for laziness in not changing their curricula or tests. The truth is: They don’t see themselves as cheaters as much as being resourceful.

3. Everyone is doing it.
Remember the sports scandal involving Lance Armstrong? This is how Tour de France participants justified doping. It created an unfair advantage so cyclists could cheat and compete or ride in obscurity in the back of the pack. A more common example can occur, if you have ever exceeded the speed limit and have been in the position of going with the flow of traffic. The traffic cop will tell you that you are the flow of traffic. But we justify our speeding, take our chances, and complain about the ticket. So, students will cite both – others had a competitive edge and it was a risk worth taking.

What Parents Can Do
For parents, understand that some students, despite our best parenting efforts, are not always bound by morals and integrity. Their moral relativism is set by social norms, tremendous pressure, and access to technological resources that make it easy to bend the rules or at least cause confusion about what the rules are. They follow, sort of, the spirit of the law more than the letter of it. Acknowledging these issues is a gateway to conversation and shouldn’t be avoided. Only then can issues of integrity, the greater good, and responsibility for one’s own actions be explored for the future.

More practically, it is always a good idea to familiarize yourself with policies before there is an issue. This can help frame the topic so students understand that institutions, in this area, will likely enforce the letter of the policy. Additionally, becoming aware of policies and procedures following an accusation of cheating can be important in helping a student prepare a response to allegations. Often, honor codes are run by students, and perhaps not as tightly administered as those managed administratively.

Our students will become tomorrow’s moral leaders as parents, bosses, leaders, and politicians. Learning these important lessons of character now is often part of the process. It is called student development. To get from here to there sometimes takes hard lessons, coaching, and acceptance of consequences. It is through mistakes that people often grow the most.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC, and may be contacted david@prospercollegiate.com.


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