I'm a college student in my senior year now, but between birth and 12th grade, I was homeschooled. During that time, the idea of cheating rarely even crossed my mind.
My first encounter with cheating as a regular part of the life of others was not until I enrolled full-time at a local community college at the age of 16. The students there would cheat, but they wouldn't talk about it. During any quiz or exam, you could look up from your seat and see all of your fellow students on their phones, googling the answers or browsing websites like Quizlet to find the solutions.
Quizlet is officially a website for students to make personalized sets of online notecards for studying. Unofficially, those notecards are one of the most popular free ways for students to cheat. While Quizlet can arguably be used for its official purpose, there is little reason for Chegg's existence beyond cheating. Chegg provides the answer keys for the exams and assignments used by most professors (since most professors don't write their own questions, most answer keys are on Chegg's database). Paying students can also copy and paste their homework questions onto Chegg, which hires 'experts' to answer each question in intense detail.
When I graduated from my community college and moved on to the respected four-year UNC Charlotte in 2020, I expected things to be different. I went into the school with a lust for learning and a true belief that higher education was a way I could satiate it. The second week of my first semester, waiting outside class for the professor to arrive, I had a disturbing conversation with my classmates. About half a dozen of them were talking openly about how they intended to cheat on the exam. The conversation was long and very loud. Only one of them looked nervous in the slightest, and even he eventually opened up about his preferred methods.
It's so normal to see or hear about a student cheating that most people don't even seem to think about it. I often considered reporting people to the school but always decided against it. I had to question whether it was worth it to get someone put on academic probation and not even put a dent in the real problem. Reporting one person would change nothing, so I would essentially ruin someone's life for the sake of it. Instead, I continued pushing the issue to the back of my mind.
There came a day when I couldn't any longer. It was my second semester at Charlotte. Finals were approaching, and in one of my classes, none of the students were prepared. The exam was essentially impossible to do well on. One would have to memorize several hundred pages of information word-for-word in order to know the answers to all of the questions. My furious fellow students talked for some time, both in person and online, about what they would do. In the end, it was a unanimous decision: they would cheat. One of them compiled all of the information they would need into a singular document and shared it with everyone before the exam. I did what I usually do: I told them that I don't approve of cheating and that they should be more careful — they never know who's going to report them.
I studied long, and I studied hard. I memorized everything that I could. A straight-A student would normally be confident in himself after such preparation. Yet when I entered that class on that cold Monday evening, sat down behind my laptop and viewed the online 50-question test, I knew I had no chance. I also knew that all I had to do was open another tab on my web browser and pull up the class' document, and I would do wonderfully. I knew every other student in that room was doing it. It was a surprisingly painful and difficult decision, but I didn't do it. I didn't cheat. And I paid for it.
The average grade on that exam was in the high 90s. I got a 60. At that point, it was the lowest grade I'd ever gotten on an exam. When an exam is very difficult, the entire class should do badly. The professor will often account for this and "curve" the grade upwards. An exam as difficult as this one, barring a professor who does not curve exams, always has a curve. The average grade was an A. There was no curve on the exam. My grade remained 60%.
When a single person cheats, they are usually only hurting themselves. They simply won't learn the material. But when cheating becomes an epidemic, it not only destroys the cheater's ability to learn, it disincentives not cheating. Professors begin to overestimate students. Exams become more difficult, and curves become less frequent. Any honest student is forced to either compromise their grade or compromise their morals and join the ranks of the cheaters. That should not be a choice that any student has to make, yet it is the choice that every student makes every single day. As cheating becomes more widespread and students get even better at doing it in secret, this problem will only grow worse.
My anecdotes are not isolated instances, and I am not overstating the widespread nature of this problem. Studies from Rutgers and Kessler International state that between 68% and 86% of students admit to cheating on exams and other assignments. The same studies state that 97% of those cheaters were never caught. A sobering 54% of the cheaters said that cheating wasn't wrong, and some even directly stated that cheating was necessary to remain competitive.
Most professors put blind trust in software like LockDown Browser or naively appeal to students' consciences. This invariably ends in whole classrooms of successful cheaters. I refuse to believe that most professors understand just how extreme the problem is. I have to believe they'd try harder to stop it if they did.
Though I somehow managed to get an A in that class and keep my straight-A status that second semester, I have never looked at higher education the same way. What I once saw as a promising place of learning and knowledge has since become a laughingstock in my mind. It's a place where the disingenuous prosper and the honest struggle. It's not about learning or about education — it's about getting a piece of paper so you can later get a job.
Perhaps my view is too cynical. Perhaps I am throwing out the entire system too quickly. But if nothing is done soon, colleges will soon only produce two types of people: those who learned to cheat and those who learned that cheaters always win.