Why can't Johnny think critically and originally even after earning a degree? Maybe because he hardly earned it at all — at least, not in the traditional sense of the term.

In at least four studies done on college campuses over the last decade by the Center for Academic Integrity in Nashville, Tenn., nearly 80% of students admitted to cheating at least once.

Called the Fundamental Values Project, the series of studies has revealed a dramatic increase in cheating, said Donald L. McCabe, professor of organizational management at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. McCabe founded the Center for Academic Integrity and conducted the studies. “Students get their cues from society at large,” he observed. “They look to see what their parents, business people and politicians are doing. If students acquire habits of taking shortcuts in college, it is going to spill over outside of college.”

Evidence supporting the Center for Academic Integrity's conclusions is as easy to drum up as the national headlines. The University of Minnesota recently released an investigative report documenting grade-tampering and plagiarism by basketball players intent on maintaining eligibility to participate in school sports. Duke University reported a record-high number of honor-code infractions last year. And, in a study of 13,000 university students from around the country, Duke found that a majority admitted to a “high level” of academic dishonesty.

Jennifer Marshall, education policy director with the Family Research Council in Washington, identified a key factor which she feels could be feeding the cheating frenzy.

“Many of our current college students came through school while Outcome-Based Education was rearing its head,” she explained. Outcome-Based Education emphasizes group work, subjective grading, and a lack of deadlines. A student who graduates from that kind of system and goes on to a college that requires a great deal of independent work and objective answers, Marshall said, is going to experience a certain amount of desperation. Outcome-Based Education has “left students without the necessary tools to succeed in such an environment,” she added.

‘The wide availability of tests makes not cheating very difficult.’

— University of Texas student Laura Houlden

“Cheating has become almost a necessary evil,” contended University of Texas student Laura Houlden. “With all the easy access to past tests, it is a disadvantage not to look at one. The wide availability of tests makes not cheating very difficult.”

Shoring Up Defenses

In response to the problem, many colleges, such as Georgetown, Vanderbilt, the University of North Dakota and Stanford have introduced various kinds of honor codes. At the University of Virginia, the punishment for code violators is expulsion.

Some colleges are passing out brochures and covering cheating cases in the campus newspaper. Others are trying to educate the student body through the use of orientation sessions and classes on such things as how to cite sources. At the University of Southern California, for example, freshmen now receive detailed training in what constitutes plagiarism.

“The different levels of plagiarism are like the different levels of hell; they are all bad,” said Susan Gebhardt-Burns, English instructor at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Gebhardt served on Wesleyan's Judicial Board for two years and said that students cheat for a number of reasons. “Procrastination, a poor work ethic and desperation,” she observed, “ ... [students] are involved in too many activities and are grasping for a higher grade. There's also a great deal of unintentional plagiarism. Some students come to college without the necessary skills.”

Gebhardt has been teaching for 14 years and said the increase in cheating has forced her to alter the way she teaches. “I have had to develop three versions of a test for the same class. I don't want to put that temptation [to cheat] in front of them,” she explained. She also assigns one-of-a-kind writing assignments to discourage students from purchasing papers on the Internet, a practice that students have told her is thriving.

Because some types of assignments are easy to find, she hasn't assigned a traditional, “argument” essay for several years. “It's my job to teach students what plagiarism is,” she said. Next year, she plans to begin requiring students to sign a form stating that their work is their own.

Catholic Colleges

McCabe pointed out that, while it's difficult to draw generalizations about dishonesty in Catholic college classrooms, size seems to be somewhat of a factor. “It is easier to implement [anti-cheating] programs on a small, residential campus where students cannot remain anonymous,” he said. “If you cheat, your fellow students know it and cheating becomes socially unacceptable.

“Cheating is not a problem at Our Lady of Corpus Christi because we have small class sizes and high student motivation,” asserted the school's president, Father James Kelleher, a member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. He said these factors aid faculty members in making students want to master the material.

Small classes also allow for customized lessons. “One professor allows students to test in different areas as they are ready,” Father Kelleher noted. “Another has personal meetings with students as they write their papers.”

Swinging Back?

Does the recent focus on academic integrity represent a coming reversion to traditional values in education? It's at least a swing in the right direction, said Jennifer Marshall.

“The ‘70s notion of a values-neutral education has been debunked,” the Family Research Council official added. “There is a growing consensus that you cannot teach without values. We are now seeing a flurry of movement in the education journals on the subject of character education. Character education, however, cannot be taught as a compartmentalized subject. It must permeate the curriculum.”

In 1989, the Templeton Foundation established an honor roll to recognize what it calls “character-building colleges.” To date, more than 350 colleges and universities have been named to the roll, including many Catholic colleges.

The Center for Academic Integrity, which works closely with the Templeton Foundation, has published its study findings in a document titled “The Fundamental Values of Academic Integrity,” which it mailed to every college president in the country in October. The document calls on America's institutions of higher learning to make values a higher priority on campus.

The reaction so far has been encouraging, said McCabe, the Rutgers professor. “Many schools are calling to request additional copies,” he added.

Phase two of the project will involve developing an assessment process to allow universities to examine their current state of academic integrity. Funded by the Templeton Foundation, this phase will help campuses make improvements where they are needed.

One of the best signs of the times, observed McCabe, is that much of the call for changes that will encourage honesty and hard work on campus are coming from students. “They are saying, ‘we know this is going on,’” he said, “‘so what are we going to do about it?’”

Tim Drake (tdrake@gw.stcdio.org) writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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To order The Templeton Guide: Colleges That Encourage Character Development, call 1-800-621-2736 or visit www.templeton.org.