Cheating at Harvard Exposes an Admissions Game

The news that 125 students at Harvard are under investigation for cheating has caused a reaction often heard when the mighty fall.

How could they have been so stupid?

And in an Introduction to Congress course, no less. How could such a large number of students -- half the class -- submit almost identical answers on the take-home final exam and assume they wouldn’t be caught?

Like politicians who send out naughty pictures of themselves or sports stars who employ a string of prostitutes, it seemed unbelievable that these cream-of-the-crop young people didn’t see this coming.

But just like politicians, Harvard students (and I say this as an alumna of that venerable institution) think they are the smartest people in the room. (Sometimes they are.) Maybe they thought they had outsmarted their professor and the graduate teaching fellows grading the exams.

Some of those involved defended themselves, claiming that the professor allowed them to share class notes, so it was no surprise that their answers on an open-book exam were the same. Students also complained that the exams were confusing as were the standards set by the professor regarding collaboration.

The Administrative Board, the school’s disciplinary organization, is deciding what consequences these students will face. Expulsion would seem an obvious answer, but it’s not.

Dean Explains

Jay Harris, the undergraduate dean, has said the school will be using the incident as an occasion for talking to students about academic integrity. Part of the problem, he indicated, was how students use the Internet. There are “clearly shifting attitudes toward the whole idea of intellectual property and what’s involved in moving bits and pixels around,” he said. “This is not a unique student problem. It’s certainly not a Harvard problem. It’s a national and international problem.”

Harris even suggested that Harvard students might not understand what is wrong with their actions. “We always stress academic integrity with our students,” he said. “It’s very hard to explain to someone that this raises ethical concerns and that it’s not OK.” Really? How hard is it?

Before the Harvard administration appoints a committee and issues a report and offers mandatory academic-integrity training for incoming students, may I make one suggestion? If 2 percent of your entire undergraduate student body is caught cheating in one class, maybe it’s time to re-examine what goes on in the admissions office.

It’s not that admissions officers should be expected to know in advance who will cheat and who won’t. Teresa Fishman of the International Institute for Academic Integrity at Clemson University in South Carolina told the Associated Press that between a quarter and a third of college students admit to cheating on tests. So maybe Harvard has a better record than most. But admissions officers really have no idea. That’s the point.

For all the time that students spend on volunteer service projects in the rain forest, for all the essays they submit describing their inner struggles and decisions always to put others first, for all the sugary recommendations they send in from their teachers, their clergy and their internship supervisors, hundreds of cheaters are still let in by the admissions officers.

Not Wonderful

In fact, people who write essays about what wonderful people they are aren’t always the most wonderful people. As Andrew Ferguson described university admissions in his 2011 book, “Crazy U”:

“At its most intense, the admissions process didn’t force kids to be Lisa Simpson; it turned them into Eddie Haskell (‘You look lovely in that new dress, Ms. Admissions Counselor.’) It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending they weren’t.”

In addition, the college process may also be encouraging deceit. Given all the parents, guidance counselors and private consultants “helping” students with their essays, is it any wonder students think that a little “collaboration” with their friends on a final exam isn’t a problem?

Maybe now that this cheating scandal has occurred, we can agree that the admissions process in its current form is a waste of time and money. Admit students based on their SAT scores. If you want to see how well they string sentences together, look at the writing portion of the SAT. (It’s pretty hard to cheat on the SATs, last year’s scandal on New York’s Long Island notwithstanding.) If your college cares about the racial, ethnic or socioeconomic mix of your incoming freshman class, ask every student to check off a box and submit their parents’ most-recent tax forms.

Then stop. Don’t conduct interviews. Don’t ask questions about students’ values or ethical dilemmas they have faced. Don’t read letters about “special circumstances.” Don’t sit around for months debating the merits of one person’s summer experience over another’s. Don’t try to decide whether volunteering at a soup kitchen is a better use of a 17-year-old’s time than being on the baseball team.

The students you admit may cheat anyway. But maybe it won’t be as hard to explain to them why that’s “not OK.”

(Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

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