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TinotopiaLog → Academic Cheating (10 Feb 2003)
Monday 10 February 2003

Academic Cheating

Recently, there have been some sketchy reports of yet another academic cheating scandal, this time at the University of Maryland. Apparently the school set up a sting, where a bogus answer key to an exam was posted on the web before the exam was over. Twelve students apparently had the answers passed to them via SMS on their mobile phones and were caught.

According to what I read, cheating and academic dishonesty in general has been on the rise of late in higher education. I don’t know whether to entirely believe this, since the media loves nothing so much as a these-kids-today-with-their-clothes-music-and-hair story. Still, for the moment let’s accept that there’s more cheating, plagiarism, etc. now in universities than there was in the ‘good old days’.

The newspapers are full of stories about cheating, but few of them examine why cheating appears to be on the rise. The only explanation I’ve seen are that “the Internet” makes cheating easier, but I’m not buying it.

My SimCity experience offers what I think is a more plausible explanation.

I like SimCity, and I’ve enjoyed every game from the original up to the new SimCity 4. I have rarely played the game for any serious period of time without cheating. SimCity, like most computer games, has a number of semi-secret ‘cheat codes’ that alter the gameplay in some way. In SimCity, your job as mayor of a little simulated city is to build roads, schools, hospitals, and the like. One of the handiest cheats is therefore the one that gives you free money, and I use it without reservation.

I cheat at SimCity, disregarding the structure of the game, because the structure of the game itself is unrealistic and boring. The city is inhabited by incredibly demanding and statist little people, all of whom want the moon, and expect the city government to provide it for them.

And should you construct a city where everyone is rich and happy, people will still riot in short order unless you spend a fortune on police. I’m not sure whether the game’s designers really believe in so much state spending and control, or whether they’re just trying to keep the player busy.

In any case, I find it all both morally offensive and a little tedious; so I ignore the game designers’ conception of what the game is for, and instead use the game’s capabilities and resources — this little city simulator — for my own purposes.

The same thing is going on in academia. A lot of the students don’t know or don’t care what is supposed to be going on in their minds while they are in school.

From the outside, ‘education’ appears to be a process of jumping through hoops. Turn in this paper, take these classes, pass this exam, and at the end of a period of some years we’ll give you a paper that says that you’re educated.

That’s not education, of course; education takes place in the mind. But the hoop-jumping is what students see, and this is what they’re externally rewarded for. You can become quite educated and still flunk out of school; and you can learn nothing and graduate with honors, if you’re crafty enough.

This has always been the case, but in the past, I think a larger proportion of students were aware that the primary reward for education was that you became an educated person.

Today, you have a large portion of the student body who just shouldn’t be there, and whose goal is not to become educated, but rather to put college behind them so they can collect their credentials as an college graduate and make money. The shortest path — or at least the easiest path — through college is to simply go through the motions, which means occasionally suffering the inconvenience of a test or a paper. The shortest path through those is simply to cheat.

It would be trivial to make cheating effectively impossible, but the academics in charge of things generally don’t have the prevention of cheating foremost in their minds. From the professors’ perspective, the students are mainly cheating themselves of the education they’re paying for. A few professors get frustrated when they catch people cheating, and make it their mission to catch cheaters, but most professors don’t worry about it. They shouldn’t have to.

The universities’ interest is a bit different, though. Sure, students are only cheating themselves, but when they later go out into the world, they do so with their university’s brand name, so to speak, stamped on them. If the universities don’t put a stop to the dishonesty, eventually people will realize that a degree that says, say, “University of Maryland” at the top doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the person holding the degree.

This has already happened, but the society hasn’t realized it yet. Most employers’ basic requirements for any white-collar worker (and for some blue-collar workers) include a college degree. What they probably actually want is a college education, and the knowledge and reasoning ability that they hope comes along with it, but what they specifically require is the degree. This is why students cheat; because the education isn’t as important as the hoop that’s to be jumped through.

The universities are not in much of a position to do anything. They genuinely want to foster academic integrity and to ensure that people holding their degrees have actually completed the process that the degree attests to. At the same time, though, most of them want to teach as many programs as possible and to attract as many students as possible, to maximize revenue.

We find ourselves in a strange supply-demand situation. I’ve made a little chart, with totally made-up statistics, to illustrate my hypothesis. Keep in mind that this chart only shows part of what I think the problem is; I’m trying to keep things comprehensible here.


The numbers along the left side are just a scale, and can be disregarded. The numbers along the bottom are years, and they are ment to show the changes in American attitudes toward education over the years. Keep in mind that all the numbers that went into this chart are just hypothetical, so the timeline should be taken to be a bit fuzzy.

The bottom blue line represents the real demand for postsecondary education in our society. It rises as our population swells and as our technologies advance at a greater rate. It represents the jobs in our society that require a college education because the work inherently requires the ability to think independently and make judgements. Example jobs are: lawyer, engineer, coffeehouse philosopher.

The top green line is our society’s demand for a college degree, distinct from the demand for advanced education. This demand is expressed by the employers’ requirements, mainly. You have to have a degree these days to do nearly any kind of indoor work that doesn’t involve a mop or a deep fryer, and you need one for some outdoor work, too. Example jobs include: Wal-Mart manager, cop, secretary.

The orange line is the number of degrees actually awarded each year: note that this is a bit lower than the demand, because college graduates are not 100% employed (though note that for the purposes of this chart, ‘coffeehouse philsopher’ counts as a job). The gray area are the people who have no real need for the education they’re undertaking, but who are in college anyway because our society has told them that it’s necessary. The gray area represents the people who are likely to cheat.

College degrees are being used as a litmus test by employers to tell them — what? I don’t know, exactly. To tell them that their prospective employee might not be a total fuckup, possibly. Rather than hiring people at entry-level positions, finding out whether they’re useful or not, and then promoting them into positions of responsibility, most companies today just check whether such a trustworthy institution as Blatzville State U. has vouched for the candidate, and install them in a cubicle. Nobody works their way up from the mailroom anymore — the mailroom has been outsourced (with a college graduate supervising), anyway.

This has worked so far, but I’m not sure it will continue to work. As the college population continues to expand and include more and more intellectually-unable people, the average intelligence of a college graduate will continue to decline to the point where nobody will believe that a degree means anything on its own anymore. People who would not have gone to college fifty years ago reasonably nevertheless regard a college degree as essential to later employment. They’re spending money and time jumping through hoops, and this hoop-jumping is being accepted by employers as evidence that they’re worthy of employment.

The economy, and the society, can only stand so much of this. I predict a backlash of sorts against college degrees by employers, as a college degree comes to be seen as evidence of hoop jumping, and only possibly of education. Unless, that is, the employers are specifically looking for hoop-jumpers, which is a possibility I won’t discount.

Posted by tino at 18:16 10.02.03
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“If you want to get laid, go to college; if you want an education, go to the library.” - Frank Zappa.

I’m one of the “lucky ones” I guess. I got my first job out of college (and I mean “out of college,” as in dropped out) because I tried to break out of an ISP’s menu system to get a UNIX command prompt. I wound up talk(1)-ing with the company president, and got the job the following week.

Until the recent economic downturn, I never had real trouble finding a job, because I was always more qualified than educated. This worked against me for a number of jobs, I know; the HR-bozo scanning resumes isn’t going to want to recommend someone who doesn’t have a degree, both because he it might belittle his degree in his eyes and because Management might think that if they can get a non-degree’d SystemAdministrator, they can get a non-degree’d HR-bozo. This was fine for me. The companies I have worked for have all been more concerned with ability than education, and I’ve consulted at places for huge fees that would never have let me in the front door.

I decided that if I didn’t get a job before August that I’d be back to school, for lack of anything better to do. I’m working now. School can wait.

Posted by: Twonk at March 18, 2003 02:26 PM