How Cheating in College Hurts Students

A lot of people cheat a little,” says David Pritchard, a physics professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied academic dishonesty in online classes. “There’s also a few people who cheat a lot.”

Though it may be tempting and feel harmless, experts caution college students to think twice before cheating on coursework. Here’s how to know what is typically considered cheating and the potential consequences.

How College Students Cheat

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.

Students also use classic classroom moves like scribbling hidden notes somewhere or using technology such as smartwatches. Copying a classmate’s assignment or plagiarizing parts of published works for a paper remain popular methods.

Many of those tactics appear to have been replaced by artificial intelligence and generative language models like ChatGPT and Google Bard, which offer some services like writing, editing and idea generation for free.

Pritchard notes that ChatGPT has performed well on exams in certain subjects, and the American Bar Association reported in March 2024 that it passed the Uniform Bar Exam by “a significant margin.” While some professors say they’re keeping an open mind about ChatGPT and similar tools, others say it’s impossible to ignore the reality that students are using them to cheat.

ChatGPT “is the future of cheating,” Pritchard says.

Rebecca Hamlin, a professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, recently joined the university’s academic honesty board and has seen cases of students caught cheating with ChatGPT. She caught 12 in her own classes during the spring 2024 semester.

“If students are genuinely interested in learning how to become writers, I’m very resistant to the idea that ChatGPT can help them,” she says. “It’s really risky because it’s actually way more obvious to someone who reads really good writing all day long. I can immediately tell.”

But plenty of students slip through undetected or cheat in other inconspicuous ways, she says.

Most instructors underestimate just how rampant the issue is, says Eric Anderman, a professor at The Ohio State University and interim dean at its Mansfield campus. “We think we’re underestimating it because people don’t want to admit to it.”

Here’s what academic integrity experts say college students should know about the immediate and long-term consequences of cheating.

The Consequences of Cheating in College

Regardless of the cheating method, students are only harming themselves and their learning process, experts say.

“I know that sounds really cheesy, but I kind of don’t really understand why someone is going to waste their time and money going to college if they don’t want to learn how to write,” Hamlin says. “That’s probably one of the top two to three skills that you gain when you go to college.”

Students also deprive themselves of a genuine feeling of achievement when they cheat, says Russell Monroe, director of academic integrity at Liberty University in Virginia.

“There’s a sense of dignity in knowing that I got a grade that I earned, whether that’s for an assignment or a class,” he says. “You can look at your degree with pride knowing this is something I achieved on my own merit and didn’t have to outsource anything to anyone else or steal or plagiarize.”

Some penalties can have a lasting effect and financial repercussions. They are often less severe for first-time offenders, but colleges keep records of such behavior. Students who continue to cheat and get caught risk failing a class, receiving academic suspension or being expelled from the school, which may come with a note on their transcript explaining why they were dismissed. This designation will likely make it harder to enroll at another college, experts say.

Students who fail a class due to academic dishonesty are usually allowed to retake it. If it’s a class required for graduation, they don’t have a choice. Either way, that means more money out of pocket, perhaps in student loans.

Each school has its own policies and disciplinary measures, and professors may vary in how they address academic dishonesty. Some may handle it on their own while others may send it to a disciplinary committee. It often depends on the severity of cheating, Monroe says. For example, cheating on a discussion board assignment isn’t seen as as serious as plagiarizing a dissertation or final exam paper, or cheating on a credential or certification exam, he says.

Plagiarizing on capstone course papers or other assignments tied to graduation is a particularly egregious offense that could jeopardize a student’s ability to graduate, experts say.

“We are putting our stamp of approval on you to move on to the next step,” Monroe says. “That next step might be graduation, but if we’re doing that based upon bad information or false information, that’s a serious problem.”

Even students who think they got 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, graduates who cheated and perhaps even ended up with good grades may find themselves starting their career unprepared and lacking needed knowledge and skills. And for jobs that have a safety component, unprepared workers could put themselves and others at risk.

Then there are occasions when academic dishonesty is revealed later and torpedoes a career, sometimes in a public and humiliating way.

Know What Is and Isn’t Cheating

While some students are well aware that they’re cheating and see it as merely a means to an end, not all forms of academic dishonesty are intentional. In many cases, it’s an accident made while under stress or when a student has procrastinated, experts say.

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.”

Colleges commonly use a variety of plagiarism-checking software, such as Turnitin, which flags written work that may be uncited or improperly cited. These tools help keep students honest and significantly decrease plagiarism, experts say.

Some forms of cheating, such as intentional plagiarism, buying papers online or paying someone to complete course work, should be fairly obvious, experts say. This is often referred to as “contract cheating,” Monroe says, and it’s an offense that can lead to expulsion from Liberty.

“It’s very difficult for us to know when that’s happening, but when we do find out, we view that very seriously because there are significant portions of your entire degree that may not have been done by the student at all,” he says.

Other areas aren’t as clear-cut, particularly what is permissible when it comes to collaborating with classmates, sharing information and using AI products. Monroe says Liberty doesn’t ban the use of AI or tools like ChatGPT, but there are boundaries around their ethical use. Students can use these tools to edit and get inspiration, but any assignment turned in must be the student’s original work.

Experts also caution against using online companies that position themselves as tutoring organizations but largely help students cheat. Colleges offer many academic resources that students can use instead, and at no extra cost.

“I would definitely encourage a student who’s facing a tough situation or feels that they can’t do their work on time to contact their professor and see if there’s some kind of alternate arrangement that can be made,” Monroe says.

Many professors are willing to accept work late, he says. Liberty’s policy is to take 10% off of an assignment’s overall grade if it’s late.

“We definitely prefer a timely submission of work,” Monroe says, “but contact your professor. They are definitely willing to work with students within the scope that they’re allowed to. That would definitely be a better situation than turning to cheating.”

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