Statistics on Why College Students Decide to Cheat

by Ralph Heibutzki

    The reasons that college students express for cheating depend on the situation although there's little doubt that the rationalizations cut across all social and class lines. Students often view cheating as the only way to level the playing field, especially if they see peers behaving likewise. Surveys also hint at other reasons, including indifference to the concept of academic integrity and an apparent lack of outrage from instructors and administrators.

    What seems clear-cut to colleges and universities is less so to students. For example, 91 percent of 63,700 U.S. and Canadian undergraduates surveyed by Rutgers University professor Donald L. McCabe rated plagiarism as serious or moderate cheating. Those margins dropped to 57 percent for copying material without attribution from an Internet source and 32 percent for collaborating on assignments that required individual work. As McCabe notes, such behavior is easy to rationalize for students trying to juggle academic, extracurricular and career obligations.

    One of the most commonly cited justifications for cheating is the drive for grades and prestige in an unforgiving world. This dog-eat-dog mentality begins in high school, as the Josephson Institute of Ethics notes. Of 23,000 students surveyed in 2012, 45 percent of males and 28 percent of females agreed that a person must lie and cheat "at least occasionally" to succeed. Twenty percent of males and 10 percent of females also believe that "it is not cheating if everyone is doing it."

    Lack of consequences encourages students to feel that nothing will happen even if they get caught. For example, an Ohio State University investigation found that 70 percent of instructors had seen some form of academic misconduct. However, only 40 percent referred suspected cheating incidents to the institution's judiciary committee, according to "The Ohio State University Weekly." The newspaper also noted that the number of academic-misconduct reprimands had declined over a decade from 240 to 115 students.

    Many students lack an understanding of what defines academic misconduct. One example is a survey published by the "Yale Daily News" in December 2010. Eighty percent of the 1,037 students surveyed claimed to understand what constituted cheating on problem sets. However, the same majority acknowledged not having read the university's code of academic regulations. One in three respondents also didn't realize that submitting a similar essay for different courses was considered cheating under the code.

    Self-interest and cheating are intertwined, according to an Arizona State University survey of 2,000 students. Thirty-eight percent were ready to cheat if a scholarship was at stake followed by 35 percent who cited fear of disqualification from a study program or the university. Thirty percent felt justified cheating if they were running out of time on an assignment. Just 15 and 20 percent, respectively, would cheat if other students did or because the instructor ignored the behavior.

    About the Author

    Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.

    Photo Credits

    • Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images