How Cheating in College Hurts Students

Cheating in college is risky business loaded with potential consequences of failing classes, suspension and even expulsion in some cases — and yet it’s wildly popular among many students and seemingly more accessible than ever.

Cheating is a multibillion-dollar business, with some educational technology companies making money off students who use their products to break or bend academic integrity rules and others earning revenue from colleges trying to prevent academic dishonesty.

Jarrod Morgan, founder and chief strategy officer of ProctorU, an online test proctoring service that observes students taking tests for colleges and other educational organizations, says the number of students engaging in academic dishonesty during the coronavirus pandemic is soaring. By some estimates, Morgan says, cheating on proctored college exams is up by as much as 700% for some subsets of students.

“I have to stress that we catch people cheating every single day,” Morgan says.

The challenges of remote instruction — which many colleges have switched to temporarily because of COVID-19 — have led to an increase in student anxiety, experts say, which in turn has prompted many to cheat when taking exams in online classes.

“One of the predominant reasons for cheating is stress,” says Camilla J. Roberts, president of the International Center for Academic Integrity. “Students are stressed to perform; they’re stressed to maintain a grade. They feel like cheating is their only option.”

[Read: Think Twice Before Cheating in Online Courses.]

While the numbers of cheaters are reportedly spiking, most instructors underestimate just how rampant the issue is, says Eric Anderman, a professor at Ohio State University–Columbus who studies academic integrity. “We think we’re underestimating it because people don’t want to admit to it.”

Here’s what academic integrity experts say college and high school students should know about cheating, including the immediate consequences and the potential long-term harm that can follow unprepared graduates into their chosen career fields.

The Consequences of Cheating in College: What to Know

Students cheat on coursework in a variety of ways, from classic classroom moves like scribbling hidden notes somewhere to using technology such as smartwatches to seek out information.

Morgan says he’s even seen cases where test-takers attempted to use drones or affix exam notes to their dogs — kind of a reversal of the old “the dog ate my homework” excuse.

But students who get caught cheating on a proctored exam automatically fail the test, Morgan says, which in turn affects their class grade. And if a failed exam causes a student to flunk a class, there may be other consequences beyond disciplinary sanctions.

“If you fail the class, and it’s a required class, a student would have to retake it and pay for those credit hours again,” Roberts says. “With finances being one of the major stressors of college students, they don’t always have (the money) to be able to retake a class.”

Considering that there are thousands of universities in the U.S., there are also thousands of policies governing academic integrity. Individual policies and the subsequent repercussions for those who get caught cheating can vary widely, meaning an individual professor may deal with the action as a class issue or a student may be hauled before a disciplinary committee.

The penalties also vary, spanning the spectrum of failing one assignment to possible expulsion.

“Usually, it’s directly related to the severity of what they’ve done,” Anderman explains.

The penalties may not be that severe for first-time offenders, but colleges keep records of such behavior. Students who continue to cheat and get caught risk academic suspension or even expulsion, which may come with a note on their transcript explaining why they were dismissed from an institution. This designation, experts say, will likely make it harder to enroll at another college.

Even students who get away with cheating may suffer consequences, such as missing out on foundational information that they need to learn and apply in higher-level classes.

Additionally, experts say graduates who cheated and perhaps even ended up with good grades may find themselves starting their career unprepared and lacking the skills they need to succeed. And for jobs that have a safety component, unprepared workers could put others at risk.

Understand the Consequences of Cheating in High School

Cheating policies at high schools, like colleges, can vary widely. Typically, though, the threat of suspension or expulsion in high school isn’t as severe.

But high schools have another form of leverage that colleges are legally prevented from using in most cases: They can call a cheating student’s parents.

Anderman, a former high school teacher, says that was one of the most feared consequences he saw for those caught cheating.

And it isn’t just mom and dad who may mete out punishment. The school may also hand down disciplinary action. But the greater setback is the loss of knowledge that students should be gaining in high school, which undermines college readiness, experts say.

“Someone who has cheated a lot in high school and been able to get away with it might suffer greatly when they get to college, by not knowing what they don’t know,” Anderman says.

[See: 12 Ways to Prepare for Your Freshman Year of College.]

Students who get caught cheating may also see a drop in a class grade if they receive a zero on an assignment, which may mean explaining a low GPA when applying to colleges or even missing out on scholarship dollars tied to academic performance.

“It can really derail your college plans if you flunk a critical course because you were caught cheating,” Morgan says.

Know What Is and Isn’t Cheating

Not all forms of academic dishonesty are intentional. Sometimes students make mistakes because they aren’t properly prepared to engage with college-level work. For example, improperly citing sources on a term paper can lead to charges of plagiarism.

“I think part of what happens is students aren’t always taught in high school how to cite and evaluate information from the internet,” Anderman says. “And I think a lot of them, when they get to college — and this is not an excuse — truly don’t realize that you can’t just look something up on the internet and put it in your paper, that you still have to cite it, and they get caught.”

He notes that colleges commonly use plagiarism-checking software, such as Turnitin, which flags written work that may be uncited or improperly cited. Turnitin is one of many examples of tools that colleges rely on to keep students honest, alongside other products that focus on watching students during exams or locking their browser when taking a test.

[Read: What International Students Should Know About Academic Integrity.]

Some forms of cheating, such as intentional plagiarism or buying papers online, should be fairly obvious, experts say. But other areas aren’t as clear-cut, particularly what is permissible when it comes to collaborating with classmates and sharing information.

“There is definitely a learning curve in terms of understanding what is allowed and what is not allowed,” Roberts says.

Experts also caution against using online companies that position themselves as tutoring organizations but largely help students cheat. Fortunately for students, colleges offer a wide range of academic resources they can use instead — and at no extra cost.

“One resource that is not used nearly enough is going to the professor’s office hours,” Roberts says.

Office hours, time typically set aside to meet openly with students, allow students stuck on an assignment the opportunity to get more clarity or a better explanation of the course material. And as many courses have shifted online, so have office hours.

Colleges commonly offer academic success programming, complete with subject tutoring and writing centers. Experts say students should look to professors and academic success resources before paying for answer sheets or swiping papers off the internet. While such legwork may take additional time and energy, putting in the work beats the consequences of being caught cheating.

“The main victim, when you cheat, is your own future,” Morgan says.

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