The Threat to Academic Integrity

The aspiration to academic integrity is nothing new. It is the foundation of good
academic work and the underpinning of the university system. If degrees cannot be
trusted, they have no value. A quick online search for this phrase brings up pages of
institutional websites, each of which describe in its own fashion an expectation that
students exercise complete honesty in their coursework and assessments. But the best
articulations of academic integrity acknowledge the forces that threaten its well-being.
The student handbook at MIT, for example, discusses how students should respond to
specific, very common, circumstances.

“MIT will ask much of you,” it states. “Occasionally, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you need to accomplish. You may be short of time, working on several assignments due the same day, or preparing for qualifying exams or your thesis presentation. The pressure can be intense . . . However, no matter what level of stress you may find yourself under, MIT expects you to approach your work with honesty and integrity . . . Whether you are working on a problem set, lab report, project or paper,
avoid engaging in plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, cheating, or facilitating academic dishonesty.”¹

For a young student in any university or college, meeting this expectation isn’t
easy. The truth is that it takes courage to uphold honesty, respect, fairness, and
trustworthiness. The pressure to do well in college is more intense than ever. This can
translate into late-night decisions to share work that they shouldn’t or buy an essay
online, especially when they know that their classmates are doing the same thing.
When the stakes are high—sky-high tuition, parental expectation of success, more
competitive school admission policies—young people are more likely to do what young
people do: take their cues from their peers.²

Today, a perfect storm of pressures can tempt even the most ethical and honest student
to cross the line. We’ve all seen the statistics, and they’re worrisome. Nearly 70% of
undergraduates admit to having cheated on exams or writing assignments
.³ In the
same studies, 95% of high school students admitted to participating in cheating in some form, either on a test, a writing assignment, or homework. Some forms of dishonesty may be on the decline—the wink and nod that the child of a wealthy benefactor gets when grades are handed out—but technology has enabled and even, some say, fostered a disreputable assortment of opportunistic tools that facilitate dishonesty.⁴ From
simple cutting and pasting to buying pre-written essays, students have access to an
unprecedented array of online cheating tools. They can even pay someone else to take
an entire course for them, from the syllabus quiz to the final exam.⁵

Technology may make it easier for students to be dishonest, but it isn’t the reason they
do so. The competition to get into programs gets stiffer every year as the applicant
pools grow and top-tier universities become more selective. The acceptance rate at the
University of Pennsylvania, for example, went from 39% in 1981 to 10% in 2017.⁶ The
pressure to succeed may be even more intense for international students. Universities
in the U.S. welcome high numbers of international students, many of whom pay as
much as three times the tuition as their domestic peers. But once here, these students
face huge pressure to do well and may not understand the American definition of
academic integrity. A Wall Street Journal survey conducted in the 2014-15 academic
year found that reports of student cheating at more than a dozen large public
universities were as much as eight times higher for international students as they were
for domestic students.⁷

What should set off alarms for higher education stakeholders is that many students
see academic integrity as just an obstacle to overcome to survive academically. This
puts academic integrity, and the mission at the heart of higher education, at risk. In
order to address this issue head-on, this report will examine the following:

  • The pressures that put academic integrity in jeopardy.
  • The risks of not managing academic integrity at an institutional level.
  • Myths and misconceptions about academic integrity.
  • Strategies for fostering and protecting academic integrity.
To continue reading and learn more about strategies for protecting academic integrity, download the Whitepaper here

1 “What Is Academic Integrity?” A Handbook for Students, 2017.

2 “Beat the Cheat,” American Psychological Association, 2011.

3 “Statistics Overview,” International Center for Academic Integrity, 2018.

4 Essay Mills: University course work to order, Times Higher Education, 2013.

5 “Paying for an A,” Inside Higher Ed, 2012.

6 Penn University Archives and Records Center: https://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/imagepenn/undergrad1.html

7 “Foreign Students Seen Cheating More Than Domestic Ones,” Wall Street Journal, 2016.

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