Cheating and Grade Inflation on Campuses: Does Everybody Cheat?

Posted By Derek Johnson on July 27, 2016 at 9:15 am
Cheating and Grade Inflation on Campuses: Does Everybody Cheat?

To our readers: Yesterday, in the first of a two-part examination, GoodCall writer Derek Johnson outlined the problems surrounding the growth of grade inflation and cheating on campuses. Today, in Part 2, hetakes a deeper look into the causes and possible solutions.


Few dispute the rise of grade inflation and cheating on modern campuses. But many contest the reasons put forward for the trend. In some cases, the key word is “modern,” because modern technology and attitudes have helped accelerate the incidence of both problems.

One of the major researchers involved in uncovering the problem is retired professor Donald McCabe, who says incidences of grade inflation and cheating have been growing demonstrably among all groups since the 1960s.  While the bulk of McCabe’s research took place in the 1990s—before the rise of the Internet, more modern research reveals that the frequency and acceptance of cheating have continued and even accelerated in the shadows of the information age.

While studies such as McCabe’s have looked into the positive effects on cheating behavior of such policies as strictly enforced honor codes and frequent discouragement by faculty, the overall trends continued upward.

Higher education: Facilitator or victim?

It’s not even clear whether higher education is a facilitator of cheating or an indirect victim of external trends. A biennial survey of high school students conducted by the Josephson Institute on Ethics has tracked a rise in cheating and acceptance of cheating that parallels what is taking place in higher education.

The most recent available results, from a survey conducted in 2012, found that 51 percent of students admitted to cheating on an exam one or more times in an academic year, while 57 percent agreed with this statement: “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” The institute said its research has found a connection between cheating in high school and dishonesty later in life.

Multiple studies and experts have found that technological innovations may be one of the primary culprits for the rise in grade inflation and cheating. Websites that offer to do homework and write term papers for students are one example, as are sources such which allow student to self-select courses and professors with easier standards or accountability.

According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of college presidents in 2011 said plagiarism on student papers had increased over the past 10 years, with a whopping 89 percent saying computers and the Internet play “a major role” in the rise.

The blessing—and curse—of technology

“Everyone cheats. Students would not be happy if their technology was taken away,” high school senior Adrian Sanchez said in an interview with the Connecticut Health I-Team last year.

Beyond making it easier to cheat, the act of communicating through social media may be affecting a generation of students in more subtle ways. Jon Baumunk, professor of business and economics at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, and Dr. Drew Stevens, an adjunct professor, author and business marketing executive who has taught at private and for-profit universities, note that they frequently see students from their classes share grades in a particular exam or class over social media.

The ubiquitous rise of smart phones may also alter the way many students research, solve problems and communicate with others. The ability to instantly “Google” a question and find an answer in seconds has upended many traditional models of academic research and discourse. “Schools need to have this sense that as technology changes, as things progress, that the institutions need to change and their policies need to reflect those changing environments,” Baumunk says.

Compounding matters is a divide between the (mostly) younger, tech-savvy students flooding college campuses today and an older generation of professors whose teaching methods are drawn from lengthy careers that pre-date the internet age. Questions or assignments that might once have taken hours or days for a student to complete can now be resolved more or less instantly. The inability of many established professors to adapt their curriculum and course material to this reality may make certain forms of cheating seem more practical to newer students, who may simply view it as no different than problems or obstacles outside of their academic careers.

“I have seen [professors] that have been at institutions for 20, 30 and in some cases 40 years. Honestly, they have not changed with the times,” Stevens says. “They’re still teaching [via] 1970s technology and talking to a 2016 student with a 1980s or 1990s cultural mindset.”

Demystifying the grading process and other solutions

It’s unclear what colleges can do to reverse the tide. Many underlying dynamics that fuel cheating and grade inflation either fall outside the control of higher education institutions or manifest before students set foot onto campus. McCabe’s research suggests that strictly enforced honor codes are one of the more effective ways to stem widespread cheating.

While it might seem odd that cheaters would be sufficiently concerned with their honor, McCabe found that in schools where codes were frequently and publicly communicated in class and where faculty made efforts to regularly instill the importance of ethical behavior, there was measurably positive effect in educating and influencing the student body.

Stevens pointed to the increasing reliance by colleges and universities on adjunct professors who are cheaper to hire, have less freedom to challenge administrators and are far less invested in a particular academic institution. Stevens, an adjunct professor himself, said the low pay and perpetual temporary status that comes with being an adjunct can lead to situations where professors have little incentive to spend time and effort rooting out cheaters or giving out harsh grades.

“As a student I can probably get away with a little bit more because they’re here today, gone tomorrow,” Stevens says. “I truly believe that some of the adjuncts are sitting there saying ‘you pay me this fee, there’s no oversight, so yeah, A’s and B’s across the board’ without any real expression of grading.”

How tuition influences cheating and grade inflation

The high cost of college is partly responsible for both cheating and grade inflation. Baumunk believes that grades have become the most straightforward, convenient way for both graduates and universities to signal academic excellence and increase their prestige with businesses and employers. Furthermore, large exams such as mid-terms and finals tend to be heavily weighted in most courses, offering “make or break” performance opportunities that invite cheating and grade-curving.

At Evergreen State College, professors use narrative evaluations at the end of a course in lieu of final exams. According to Baumunk, these evaluations—usually consisting of a single page noting the student’s accomplishments, strengths and room for future growth—make simple comparisons between academic performance difficult and reduce the kind of competitiveness that can often lead a student to cheat.

Baumunk also says he tries to break up class assignments up into smaller, equally weighted bits, reducing the all or nothing mentality that surrounds mid-terms and final exams. “Basically that one exam reflects the learning that’s occurred throughout an entire semester. I don’t like that,” he says. “[Narrative evaluations] can guide student learning in the future and demystify the process of ‘why did I get this particular grade?’”

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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