Friday, September 23, 2011

The Costs of Cheating

Honor codes are taken very seriously at universities across the United States and other countries.  Yet cheating remains a persistent problem.  There are the classic ways of cheating, such as sneaking cheat sheets into classes for a test, or coordinating with other students in various ways to share information.  The internet has enabled many new techniques for cheating.  There are websites where you can purchase essays on a variety of subjects.  There are websites where you can hire a tutor that will essentially do your homework for you.

All of this begs the question: why would students want to cheat?  Education is an investment in your own human capital, and as such cheating actually robs the individual of that human capital.  Most students do not begin a course wanting to cheat.  It is typically a behavior that results from the pressure to achieve despite a self perceived (high) risk of failure.  For instance, if a student has not managed their time very well and their projects have become overwhelming compared to the amount of time they have remaining, they are more likely to consider cheating.  It is because they have already wasted potential investments in human capital (which are paid for in tuition and time, the time portion being wasted) that they are more willing to consider cheating to receive credit in a technical sense, despite the fact that they cannot receive the actual human capital.

Educational institutions are typically degree granting.  As such their degree is an reputational asset that they are trying to protect.  If many students receive degrees, but are not as knowledgeable as the degree would suggest, that would harm the reputation of the degree for the institution and every individual who already has invested in that degree.  Thus, it is in the interest of the institution and the alumni that cheating be aggressively rooted out.

It is because of this reputation based asset that an educational institution will forbid a student from paying another student (or any individual) to do his or her work.  In business, individuals specialize and pay others that can do an amount of work more efficiently to do it.  So just as a nurse pays an auto mechanic to fix their car, and the auto mechanic pays the nurse to fix them, one student might be very good at writing essays and another student might be very good at performing mathematical equations, but they cannot exchange services and specialize because that is considered cheating.

In that video clip of Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield's character Thornton Melon is a successful businessman who goes to college.  While in college, he attempts to employ a method that he used as a businessman, specialization.  He has specialized as a businessman and has a certain amount of wealth.  He would like to use a portion of that wealth to employ Kurt Vonnegut to write an essay about the writings of Kurt Vonnegut.  He receives a failing grade because the professor determines to be plagiarized.  In business, this act of specialization would perhaps be normal, but it is not so in school and Melon has learned a lesson the hard way.

I like to answer questions on the site, because often lay people will ask questions about economics and answering them can be a fun way to spread knowledge about economics.  As I entered the site today, I noticed that many of the questions were obviously homework questions (probably for Macroeconomics 101).  This is not altogether uncommon, but it looked on this page that this individual was not just putting the hardest question up to the group, but perhaps the whole lot.  Potentially answering these questions offers up ethical questions for the answerer.  If I answer these questions, would I would be breaking the honor code of my university.  According to George Mason University's (GMU) honor code giving or receiving advantage is considered cheating, so I think this would fall into that category, despite the fact that I do not know whether this is a fellow GMU student.

As an economics major, I can't imagine asking anyone else to do this work for me.  This is why I began speculating that this is not an economics major.  Degree granting institutions have many requirements for obtaining a degree.  Many of these are within the students desired specialization, but many are not.  I assert that if the class or project falls outside of the students desired specialization, the student will be much more likely to consider cheating.  This is because the student actually values that particular human capital much less or not at all.  So if a student is a biology major, but is forced to take classes in literature to fulfill a degree requirement, the student may not value that information or the human capital that it would create.  Thus, the personal penalty of them cheating is diminished.  They still risk being caught and potentially suffer whatever penalty the university enforces, but they will not lose valuable human capital because they never valued it in the first place.

Cheating in a university setting (even if effective) robs the individual of human capital even if they receive the degree.  This loss is only as large as the individual values that human capital.  Cheating also undermines the reputational value of the degree to the proportion that cheating is present for the institution.

The Field Mice - "If You Need Someone"

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