Academic dishonesty at Stanford: What compels elite students to cheat?

Stanford University is the latest in a series of schools to investigate violations of academic honor codes. Why do students, even at the country's most prestigious institutions, cheat?

Amy Anthony/AP
Stanford University freshman students Blanca Diaz, left, and LaQuintah Garrett work on their laptops prior to the Inter-Ivy First-Generation Student Network conference at Brown University Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Providence, R.I. The three-day inaugural conference will bring together more than 250 students and administrators from Ivy League and other elite schools, as well as educational stakeholders.

Stanford University is the latest in a series of top American universities to admit it has a cheating problem.

With nearly 16,000 students enrolled at Stanford, a few incidences of cheating and plagiarism are expected each quarter. But in a letter sent Tuesday by University Provost John Etchemendy, the school is investigating “an unusually high number of troubling allegations of academic dishonesty,” during the winter quarter.

The school is concerned over incidents in a number of courses, particularly one of the school's largest introductory courses where one in five students are suspected of having cheated. The University is currently in the process of contacting those students, Dr. Etchemendy wrote.

Stanford is just one of several elite schools that have investigated violations of the respective academic honor codes in the past few years, including Harvard University, Dartmouth College, University of North Carolina, the Air Force Academy, and Stuyvesant High School.

So why do students cheat so frequently? 

Studies have shown that today’s college and high school students are cheating at an ever increasing rate, and that high achievers are just as likely to cheat as everyone else.

Technology makes it easier not only to find information to plagiarize, but also to share work with other students. Additionally, many students do not see anything wrong with sharing their own work or borrowing heavily from the work of others due to the culture of collaboration that has arisen in the millennial generation, Etchemendy noted in his letter.

Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the New York Times that over the 20 years he has studied professional and academic integrity, “the ethical muscles have atrophied,” partially due to cultural pressure to succeed, he says.

By this standard, students who care more about school and grades, particularly those enrolled in more competitive universities will find it easier to excuse cheating in the name of success. In fact a study completed at Middlebury College showed that “contextual factors, such as students’ perception of peers’ behavior are the most powerful influence” on those who chose to cheat.

Donald L. McCabe, a professor at the Rutgers University Business School, and a leading researcher on cheating, told the Times hes doesn't “think there’s any question that students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students, and that’s abetted by the adults around them."

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