College cheating is bad for business

September 24, 2008

In an age where a new cheating/corruption scandal is front-page news nearly every day -- think Enron, Barry Bonds, Eliot Spitzer, and Marion Jones for starters -- it is perhaps not surprising that dishonesty is a problem on most college campuses.

Academic dishonesty, which runs the gamut from plagiarizing to purchasing papers and theses, sharing answers on assignments, taking another's exam, and failing to do work for a team project, is, unfortunately, part of the college experience for many students today. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University and Washington State University surveyed 5,331 graduate students at 32 universities in 2006. Of these, 56 percent of the graduate business students and 47 percent of the non-business graduate students admitted to cheating one or more times in the past year.

These numbers are an ominous sign for the academic and business communities.

"It's not just a matter of cheating on a test and getting ahead; there are all kinds of systemic implications that result from academic dishonesty," says Marianne Jennings, professor of legal and ethical studies at the W.P. Carey School of Business.

The legitimacy of college diplomas and the colleges that grant them may be at stake, says Jennings, who, along with W. P. Carey economics professor Stephen Happel, examines the reasons behind rising academic dishonesty in a just published paper. If two students -- one a cheater and one an honest student -- can gain the same degree, they ask, does that degree really convey an honest representation of academic accomplishment?

In addition, an abundance of cheating on college campuses threatens to demean the integrity of universities as a whole. "If a school becomes known as a place where you can cheat and get away with it and get a degree without working very hard, eventually that is the kind of students the school will attract," says Robert Mittelstaedt, dean of the W. P. Carey School, who has taken an active role in trying to reduce academic dishonesty within the business school.

College cheating also works its way into the business marketplace. "Students don't just say OK I cheated in school, but now I'm in the workplace and it ends here. They are forming bad habits that carry over into the market," says Jennings.

Employers eager to hire graduates with prestigious degrees and excellent grades may be in for an unpleasant surprise when their new hires don't live up to expectations, which can be especially damaging for business schools because support from the business community is crucial. If employers too often find the schools' students to be less-than-stellar employees, they make look elsewhere when hiring. "If an ASU student cheats his or her way through school and goes out into the workplace and is then found out, that comes back and reflects poorly on us," explains W.P. Carey Associate Dean Kay Faris.

The cheating market

How best to approach cheating in an academic research setting is tricky. Professors who shine a spotlight on the controversial issue when other schools are not openly talking about it are not usually rewarded. But Jennings and Happel argue that publicizing the academic dishonesty problem is the first step toward combating it. Their unique approach is to examine the cheating phenomenon through a microeconomic lens.

"What we tried to do is approach cheating the way economists approach any basic problem -- there is a demand for something and a supply for something and a price that results," explains Happel.

This method helps to strip the issue of its emotional baggage, and allows the researchers to delve into the problem as they would any other. It also has the added benefit of helping students see the relevance of their actions beyond the confines of the classroom.

"When students realize that this rampant cheating ultimately leaves us no way of measuring merit -- which is the basis of all economic, free-market systems -- then it makes perfect sense to them," Jennings says.

Jennings and Happel propose that a student market exists for academic dishonesty and a faculty market for honesty. Though the two markets work against each other, in both cases, supply and demand combine to result in an equilibrium price in the market.

"If a student goes to a Web site to get a term paper, he has to pay money for it. Or if he is cheating through a buddy, he may be paying in kind -- 'If you help me out with this paper, you can borrow my car this weekend,'" Happel explains.

From the faculty perspective, the "price" of increasing the supply of academic honesty includes the time and energy spent pursuing a cheating incident -- which can be significant, and often includes legal battles. In addition, say Jennings and Happel, many professors cite a lack of administrative support when fighting these cases as a deterrent to being more diligent about curbing cheating. As a result, the supply curve for cheating remains in students' favor.

"Right now the costs on the enforcement side are high and the risk for students is low -- they know they could be caught, but they feel the likelihood of enforcement is small and the sanctions might be even less, so they weigh that and cheating is a logical conclusion," explains Jennings.

Deterring dishonesty

But the balance in this equation may be starting to shift -- at least within the W. P. Carey School. Since Jennings and Happel first wrote about this topic a few years ago, the school has increased efforts to deter academic dishonesty. Cheating is now discussed frequently with students, starting during orientation week, and continuing throughout the year.

"I'm not sure the dean ever speaks with a group of students without mentioning it," says Faris, adding that this attitude "infiltrates to all of us who have connections with students, making the issue at the forefront of everyone's minds."

Dean Mittelstaedt has also upped the administration's support for faculty seeking to prosecute cheaters, and offers reminders to professors at the beginning of each semester about the importance of going after academic dishonesty. And the school has backed up these actions with stricter sanctions for students who are caught engaging in cheating.

Dean Mittelstaedt shares the tale of one student who was recently barred from graduating. The student, who was on track to complete his degree with honors in three and one-half years, created a fictitious e-mail account made to look like that of a faculty member. Using that email address, he falsified a note to the Honors College saying that he had had successfully completed the honors thesis, when in fact, he hadn't done the work.

"In this case, the sanction we took was that the student didn't graduate at all," explains Mittelstaedt. "It was a very sad situation, but to maintain the reputation of our institution we have to have standards."

"In addition, we have an obligation as educators to help students recognize when they are in an ethical quandary, and to teach them to do the right thing in those situations," he adds.

A hard problem

While stricter measures have helped, it is clear that cheating will be nearly impossible to stamp out completely.

Whether the blame is placed on a culture that rewards success at all costs, driving students to dishonesty in order to get ahead; the introduction of a cheater's paradise of technology such as cell phones, text messaging and the Internet; or the perceived lack of penalty for cheating, students will likely continue to engage in this behavior for some time to come. And they are quite skilled at it.

"Part of what makes this so difficult is that you rarely see the same cheating problem a second or third time. Something new and innovative always pops up. No two cases are the same," notes Faris.

Jennings and Happel also cite the economic argument that things persist in the marketplace for a reason. "The thinking on cheating -- and it's the same thinking you see executives using -- is, 'I am rewarded for this behavior, so why would I not do it?' It is basic economics," explains Jennings.

"The fact that people are not rising up in arms throughout society and screaming about this issue means something is going on that isn't all bad," adds Happel. Perhaps it's the division-of-labor arrangement that many cheaters rely upon. "If I'm good at English and you're good at math, the idea is you help me out and I'll help you out," he notes. Yet even though such 'teamwork' skills are valuable in the marketplace, their existence in a university setting stretches the boundaries of acceptability -- something students don't always recognize.

Raising the cost of cheating

So, while the root causes and the reasons for cheating persist, should we expect the market rewards for cheating to change at some point and tip the scales toward greater honesty? Here again, the supply and demand argument comes into play.

"If we really shift the supply curve back and reduce the number of suppliers to students in the cheating market -- pass laws, and eliminate these Internet sites which provide thesis papers, for instance -- this raises the price of cheating among students so that it is much more difficult and time-consuming to find someone to cheat from that won't turn them in, then you can certainly cut back on cheating," explains Happel. "That is just common sense in a demand-and-supply framework."

Happel admits, however, that this is not the likely outcome. What is more feasible is bringing the "costs" of enforcement down so academic dishonesty becomes a less attractive option for students. "If you change those costs, and if you also introduce the element of self-enforcement among students, then the risk and cost for students increase so much that they say never mind to cheating," Jennings says.

Jennings reports that last semester, for the first time in years, she did not have a cheating scandal among her students.

And overall within the business school, the number of cases that are serious enough to land at Dean Mittelstaedt's door remains small. Among approximately 7,000 graduate students, the dean reports dealing with about six to eight cases within the last year.

"I think we are successfully changing the culture," he says.

Bottom Line:

  • Cheating is a problem among many college students: in a recent study, 56 percent of graduate business students and 47 percent of non-business graduate students admitted to cheating one or more times in the past year.
  • Engaging in academic dishonesty has systemic implications beyond the classroom -- it hurts fellow students by skewing the grading system, threatens the integrity and reputation of the university, and can damage businesses that hire graduates who don't have the skills they are expected to have.
  • Analyzing academic dishonesty through a microeconomic lens helps illuminate what drives students to cheat, and shows how the demand, supply and price of the cheating "market" function.
  • By reducing the "cost" of enforcement and raising the "price" of cheating, and by discussing cheating openly among students and faculty, the W. P. Carey School has made strides in reducing cheating among its students.