Are Prescription Drugs 'Cheating'?

This semester, Wesleyan University administrators modified the student Code of Non-Academic Conduct to ban the “misuse or abuse” of prescription drugs. This inclusion is not unusual; many colleges, including Wesleyan’s peer institutions, ban prescription drug abuse in their student codes. But the case of Wesleyan is an anomaly because of the ban’s origins.

October 13, 2010

This semester, Wesleyan University administrators modified the student Code of Non-Academic Conduct to ban the “misuse or abuse” of prescription drugs. This inclusion is not unusual; many colleges, including Wesleyan’s peer institutions, ban prescription drug abuse in their student codes. But the case of Wesleyan is an anomaly because of the ban’s origins.

The misuse of prescription drugs was banned not because of concerns over health, safety or illegality, said Michael J. Whaley, Wesleyan's vice president for student affairs, but because the activity violates the spirit of the student honor code.

Wesleyan's honor code, like those at many of the colleges that have them, focuses on academic matters. Whaley said that over the past couple of years about a half-dozen students have come to him with complaints about prescription drug abuse. “They were essentially raising it within the context of the honor code,” he said. “Neither I nor the honor board disagreed with that assessment,” but the ban was better suited for a conduct code, he said.

It seems that only one part of the Wesleyan Honor Code could be applied to prescription drugs. As part of the pledge that all students are required to make, students must affirm that their tests and other academic exercises are completed “without improper assistance.”

Of course, this word choice begs some questions. What constitutes improper assistance? If students are using study aids -- prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin that can increase students’ focus and alertness -- for studying rather than exams or homework, is that a violation of the honor code? Can study aids, which are used the same way that millions of people use coffee or energy drinks, really be called cheating mechanisms?

One Wesleyan senior, Bradley Spahn, vehemently opposes the use of study aids, which are often distributed or sold by students with prescriptions. He was one of the students who campaigned to get prescription drug misuse banned. As a high-ranking member of the university’s student assembly two years ago, he repeatedly spoke to Whaley and other administrators about the issue, he said.

Spahn said the study aid culture at Wesleyan -- where he says the drugs are used “commonly,” particularly within the most academically intense majors -- is one of don’t ask, don’t tell. “Study drugs aren’t thought of as being as serious as plagiarism or traditional forms of cheating. In short, study drugs are tacitly accepted, but with a lot of variability of student opinion on whether it’s wrong or not,” he wrote in an e-mail. In one class Spahn attended, nearly half the students admitted to either taking study aids without a prescription or taking more than their prescribed dose for a 24-hour take-home test, he said. "I know how serious the problem is, and how unfair the advantages they offer are."

However, research has shown that the vast majority of students who use study aids use them for just that – studying. A December 2008 study that surveyed about 3,400 students at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that about 94 percent of students who reported using attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications without a prescription did so in order to concentrate better or feel less restless while studying, or to be able to study longer. The study also found that non-prescription users were more likely to belong to a fraternity or sorority and to have lower grade point averages.

And while Spahn believes study aids constitute cheating because they help students secure advantages that are not universally available, many others say the opposite. One is Donald L. McCabe, a Rutgers professor of management and global business, who has studied cheating and surveyed students and faculty on the topic for about 20 years. Although his scholarly work has not focused much on study aids, he has heard some discussion on whether they are a form of cheating.

Study aids probably don’t qualify as cheating mechanisms because they are in fact easily accessible, creating a level playing field, McCabe said. In his research of high school students, he said many were upset because they were -- for lack of a better word -- too “chicken” to take the drugs themselves. “My sense was they were more concerned about the advantage because other students were willing to do it and they weren’t,” he said.

McCabe said the real issue, which has the potential to get more serious as study aid use becomes more widespread, is that students are getting prescription drugs when they shouldn’t be, even putting their health at risk. “Is it academic cheating? Probably not,” he said. “But is it inappropriate behavior? Yes.”

There is also debate as to whether the drugs really provide any advantage at all. David Leibow, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry in Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, said that study aids can’t make people better students. They may make it a little easier to stay focused, but the students still have to force themselves to work.

“It only advantages them in terms of their own innate capabilities. It doesn’t advantage them compared to their peers,” Leibow said. He added that banning study aids on the basis of academic dishonesty is “pretty dubious. In that case, they should probably ban coffee, studying too much or any other edge somebody tries to get without being more proficient or more accomplished.”

It’s an outlook shared by some Wesleyan students. One, a 2009 graduate who estimated that he used study aids "three out of eight finals weeks" and asked to remain anonymous for fear of legal repercussions, agreed that he knows “a lot of people” who have used the drugs.

He said that although students generally don’t consider them a big deal, he has been part of “abstract discussions” that concluded in the point of view he maintains today: “If everybody knows where to get it, it’s not cheating. If it’s hard to get, it’s cheating,” he said. “It’s just not universally acceptable.”

Although most people who use study aids without a prescription may be college students, they’re not the only ones. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 6.4 percent of full-time college students used Adderall non-medically from 2006-07, compared to 3 percent of other people in the same age group, according to an April 2009 report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

College users were more likely than non-users to have used illicit drugs in the past year, and 90 percent were “binge alcohol users.” Users were more likely to be male and white, and while students with family incomes under $20,000 were likelier to be users than were those at higher economic levels, the percentage of users rises again above the $50,000 mark.

“The higher rate of non-medical use of Adderall among full-time college students than among others in the same age range is a public health concern because of this drug’s potential for dependence or abuse,” the study says.

Most of the students who responded to Facebook interview requests from Inside Higher Ed were not concerned about study aid use at Wesleyan, and did not think the drugs are a form of cheating.

Demetria Spinrad, a Wesleyan senior, said there’s a “fair amount” of Ritalin and Adderall use at the university, but she hesitates to call it abuse. Most people she knows who use the drugs have prescriptions but either don’t use all the pills or use them only around exam time. Spinrad also does not consider the drugs a form of cheating. “Caffeine keeps me awake and helps me focus. Is that cheating?” she wrote. “I doubt that Ritalin has the magical ability to turn a C paper into an A paper.”

A Wesleyan junior, Calvin Goetz, said that while he knows many prescription and nonprescription users, he also knows “a ton of people who steer clear” of study aids. “I think it’s present, but not so much an issue,” he wrote. “Perhaps it makes it easier for them to focus, but in the end, they have to do the exact same amount of work as everyone else, be it all in one night or throughout a week of scheduled studying.”

The 2009 graduate, like other students who responded to messages, said it’s important to consider the context. “The typical Wesleyan student is the one who’s doing 600 things at once, and there’s pros and cons to that,” he said. “The people who didn’t need [study aids] were the people who got their work done on time,” and the people who got their work done on time didn’t pursue other activities. Better to use the drugs and make the most of college, having time for school, work, clubs and social activities, than spend all your time on schoolwork, he said. Otherwise, “what’s the point of going to school?”

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