For over a decade, each of us has been actively engaged in a national effort to help colleges and high schools combat an ever-increasing rise in the incidence of academic dishonesty among students -- cheating on tests and exams, on written assignments, and on class projects. Both of us are concerned that higher rates of academic dishonesty -- and student attitudes toward it -- have the potential to do lasting damage both to America's colleges and to the larger society.
Some educators are responding to the challenge by collaborating in what we call a "new honor code" movement. We applaud this effort and believe it must be accelerated. A unique opportunity to do so is now at hand as a new generation of college students more receptive to ethical leadership is arriving on campus.
Research confirms recent media reports concerning the high levels of cheating that exist in many American high schools, with roughly two-thirds of students acknowledging one or more incidents of explicit cheating in the last year. Unfortunately, it appears many students view high school as simply an annoying obstacle on the way to college, a place where they learn little of value, where teachers are unreasonable or unfair, and where, since "everyone else" is cheating, they have no choice but to do the same to remain competitive. And there is growing evidence many students take these habits with them to college.
At the college level, more than half of all students surveyed acknowledge at least one incident of serious cheating in the past academic year and more than two-thirds admit to one or more "questionable" behaviors -- e.g., collaborating on assignments when specifically asked for individual work. We believe it is significant that the highest levels of cheating are usually found at colleges that have not engaged their students in active dialogue on the issue of academic dishonesty -- colleges where the academic integrity policy is basically dictated to students and where students play little or no role in promoting academic integrity or adjudicating suspected incidents of cheating.
The Impact of Honor Codes
A number of colleges have found effective ways to reduce cheating and plagiarism. The key to their success seems to be encouraging student involvement in developing community standards on academic dishonesty and ensuring their subsequent acceptance by the larger student community. Many of these colleges employ academic honor codes to accomplish these objectives.
Unlike the majority of colleges where proctoring of tests and exams is the responsibility of the faculty and/or administration, many schools with academic honor codes allow students to take their exams without proctors present, relying on peer monitoring to control cheating. Yet research indicates that the significantly lower levels of cheating reported at honor code schools do not reflect a greater fear of being reported or caught. Rather, a more important factor seems to be the peer culture that develops on honor code campuses -- a culture that makes most forms of serious cheating socially unacceptable among the majority of students. Many students would simply be embarrassed to have other students find out they were cheating.
In essence, the efforts expended at these schools to help students understand the value of academic integrity, and the responsibilities they have assumed as members of the campus community, convince many students, most of whom have cheated in high school, to change their behavior. Except for cheating behaviors that most students consider trivial (e.g., unpermitted collaboration on graded assignments), we see significantly less self-reported cheating on campuses with honor codes compared to those without such codes. The critical difference seems to be an ongoing dialogue that takes place among students on campuses with strong honor code traditions, and occasionally between students and relevant faculty and administrators, which seeks to define where, from a student perspective, "trivial" cheating becomes serious. While similar conversations occasionally take place on campuses that do not have honor codes, they occur much less frequently and often do not involve students in any systematic or meaningful way.
The 'New Honor Code' Movement
A survey conducted under the auspices of the Center for Academic Integrity in the 1999/2000 academic year helps explain the benefits of honor codes -- even at larger campuses where academic dishonesty is often more common. Included in this sample were three colleges (including the University of Maryland at College Park) that have adopted what are known as "modified" honor codes. These modified codes -- adopted in recent years at a rapidly growing number of institutions -- differ from traditional codes in at least two ways: unproctored exams are used only at the instructor's option and students are generally not expected to report cheating they might observe. However, modified codes do call for significant student involvement in promoting academic integrity and in adjudicating allegations of academic dishonesty.
They also impose strict sanctions for academic dishonesty (like suspensions or transcript notations), but do so in a context where education and prevention take priority over the threat of punishment alone.
Neither traditional nor modified honor codes eliminate all cheating, even serious cheating. However, the Center for Academic Integrity survey showed that only 23 percent of students at colleges with traditional honor codes reported one or more incidents of serious test or exam cheating in the past year, contrasted with 45 percent of students at colleges with no honor code. At the three modified honor code institutions in the study, 33 percent of the respondents self-reported an incident of serious test or exam cheating -- intermediate between the levels found on traditional honor code and no honor code campuses.
The Maryland Model
The modified honor code at the University of Maryland is now in its 14th year -- the longest history among modified honor codeinstitutions. Before adopting an honor code, Maryland relied almost exclusively on faculty members and administrators to report and resolve allegations of academic dishonesty.
For years, under this administrative system, the university resolved about 60 cases a year -- a tiny fraction of the actual incidents believed to be occurring. Immediately after implementing a modified honor code in 1990, case referrals jumped to over 100 annually, climbing steadily to a record 300 referrals in 2002-3 (while enrollment held steady or declined as higher admissions standards were imposed).
Although 300 cases does not capture the full extent of academic dishonesty at most large public universities, Maryland's new approach (especially the creation of an all-student Honor Council with significant authority to resolve allegations and educate their peers) sent the critical message that students cared about academic integrity and were willing to set and enforce high academic integrity standards. Empowered by this student support, an increasing number of faculty addressed and reported incidents of cheating that had often gone unreported previously.
An important element of Maryland's success is the fact that faculty members and administrators were already accustomed to seeing students as participants in campus governance. A student sits on the statewide Board of Regents and students make up 20 percent of Maryland's University Senate (a body that reviews and makes recommendations about core institutional policies). The impetus for this level of student participation was the campus revolutions of the 60's and 70's, which institutionalized student power and all but ended the concept of "in loco parentis" in American higher education. Ironically, those campus revolutions also laid the groundwork for the revitalization of an old academic tradition: student-administered honor codes.
Honor Codes and 'Millennials'
The new honor code movement at American colleges will founder or flourish, depending on whether educators draw upon the best traits of the new generation of students now populating our campuses. This group, born on or after 1982, has been described by writers William Strauss and Neil Howe as the "Millennial" generation. No cohort of children has received such intense parental attention (shuttled relentlessly from day care to music lessons to soccer games) -- with results that appear to justify the effort.
Among teenagers, national data show significant declines in rates of pregnancy, smoking, drug use, violence, and suicide. On campus, the most observant college teachers and administrators report seeing a "different" generation of students, closer to their parents; more optimistic about the future, more engaged in community service, more academically oriented, more politically engaged, and less depressed.
No one suggests the Millennial generation will be an unequivocal blessing. One Millennial characteristic -- a strong peer orientation -- has potential for harm, and may help account for the higher rates of cheating observed in secondary schools. In their book, Millennials Rising, Howe and Strauss write that Millennials are "drawn to circles and cliques. Only three in ten report that they usually socialize with only one or two friends, while two in three do so with groups of friends."
A critical task for college teachers and administrators in the current decade is to help the Millennials reach their highest potential. Will the Millennial interest in rituals and traditions be used solely to revitalize homecoming parades and athletic boosterism -- or to enhance the campus ethical climate? Will the Millennials' peer orientation be allowed to undermine the core value of academic integrity, or protect it?
Committed and collaborative leadership will be required, emphasizing virtues likely to appeal to Millennial sensibilities, like trust, honesty, and community responsibility. If such leadership is provided, innovations like modified honor codes will prosper. If not, widespread cheating may become institutionalized in American higher education.
Donald L. McCabe is professor of management and global business at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity. Gary Pavela is director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park and past president of the Center for Academic Integrity.