The scandal at Harvard University in which authorities are investigating whether nearly half of a class of 279 students cheated on a take-home final exam raises a number of questions, including this: Does everybody cheat?

Dozens of Harvard University students are being investigated for cheating after school officials discovered evidence they may have wrongly shared answers or plagiarized on a final exam. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Harvard, like most U.S. colleges and universities, has never had an honor code, although the Associated Press reports that it is giving “renewed consideration” to the idea as a result of the scandal.

But even honor codes at schools that take pride in them don’t stop some cheating. In fact, cheating has long been endemic, from the early grades through college — and Harvard grads note that cheating is hardly uncommon there.

So, does everybody cheat?

Not quite, but studies show that most students cheat at one time or another.

* A survey of 40,000 high school students done by the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics in 2010 found that more than half of teenagers said they had cheated on a test in the previous year, and 34 percent said they had done it more than twice.

* One-third of the students said in the same survey that they had plagiarized an assignment with the help of the Internet.

* An article in the American Psychology Association journal notes that things don’t get better in college. Donald McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University and co-founder of Clemson University’s International Center for Academic Integrity, has been studying cheating for decades.

He found in one study that that about two-thirds of college students admit to cheating on tests, homework and assignments.

* The consequences for the country may be significant. A 2009 study by the Josephson Institute about the relationship between high school attitudes and behavior and later adult conduct found that people who cheated on exams in high school two or more times are considerably more likely to be dishonest later in life as compared to those who never cheated in high school.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen successive scandals in the past few years involving cheating by the adults in school — teachers and principals — as a result of the growing importance of standardized tests. As the stakes associated with the scores have risen — the tests are used to gauge not only student achievement, but also teacher effectiveness, school and district quality — more people have taken desperate measures to make sure those scores go up. Not an excuse, just an explanation.

According to FairTest, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce the misuse of tests, cheating cases have been documented in 30 states and the District of Columbia over the past three academic years.

And modern technology makes it even easier to cheat. Some students, including those at virtual schools, sometimes put entire quizzes on the Internet, and the same exams are used repeatedly by teachers.

Back at Harvard, a “culture of cheating” persists, Harvard graduate and author Eric Kester told ABC News.

“There’s a lot of pressure internally and externally to succeed at Harvard, and when kids who are not used to failing feel these things, it can really bend their ethics in ways I didn’t expect to see,” he said.

Yes, even at Harvard.


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