The Harvard Cheating Scandal Gone Global

Sammy Kelner on Education

When students stop caring, so do teachers. Teachers are demoralized by cheating, and every attempt to correct what is wrong with the current education crisis typically ends in defeat. Teachers want to share the passion they have for their subject, but when students actively work against all their teachers’ efforts by cheating, it creates a defeating cycle. This is not an environment where real learning can happen. 

Cheating causes the education system to lack credibility. If the majority of university and school grades reflect cheating, then students’ grades are no longer an accurate reflection of their learning, only their ability to cheat. This leads to unmotivated students and teachers. Students are aware that their marks no longer correlate to their effort or understanding, and teachers are aware that their efforts are often lost on students. This experience is not confined to a few schools.

One of the most well known cheating incidents was the 2012 Harvard cheating scandal. Publicized by many news outlets, such as the New York Times and The Washington Post, it was discovered that approximately half of 279 Harvard students were suspected of cheating on the final. This was horrifying for many to hear, since Harvard is one of the most prestigious colleges in America, and many students did not view their actions as cheating. 

However, studies have shown that cheating is increasing all across the world, and even the most prestigious schools in America accept it. An article published in 2019 by Yale Daily News shared the results of a recent study in which 1,400 Yale undergraduates were asked to report whether or not they have cheated. Out of this 1,400 respondents, approximately 14% admitted to cheating, or 191 students. Students at Ivy League schools, where it is believed that the most academically talented students attend, admit to regular cheating. 

So what does that mean for the education system? 

According to Educational Testing Services, cheating has risen in schools drastically, with only twenty percent of high-school students in the 1940’s admitting to cheating, in contrast to the seventy-five percent of high school students who have admitted to cheating in the present day. In current years, many external pressures from parents, as well as the growing belief that in order to be successful in life you need to get into a good college causes students to feel incredible amounts of stress, and this often causes them to make the choice to sacrifice real learning for a few additional points on an assessment.

Students are under so much external pressure to succeed, and this fuels their motivation to cheat, and many have no motivation to learn as real learning is not rewarded. Students likely do not understand what an answer means or why the answer is what it is, but they know how to get the “right one” that brings them the success in the eyes of others. The ability to repeat a fact or Google an answer is not real learning. Being able to make connections and analyze the importance of information is real learning. Around the globe, students have been taught that a higher grade correlates to one’s self worth and success in society, and these beliefs have caused students to abandon what they may believe is morally correct in order to make other people pleased with their grades. 

But when teachers attempt to prevent students from cheating, they end up drained and exhausted. While teachers want their students to actually learn and develop important skills, they should not be responsible for whether or not a student has the desire to learn. Teachers devote their lives to passing on real knowledge, and if students are taking this for granted and cheating on assessments rather than learning the material, they have no desire to put in their own best effort. Through a systemic culture of cheating, mutual respect and partnership between teachers and students has completely broken down, and both parties feel that their roles no longer matter.

As students, we need to take partial responsibility for this and help fix what has eroded the quality of our own education. We abuse the honor system. We make our teachers feel as though they have no purpose, and students feel like their grades have no real meaning. This is not sustainable. While I don’t have a solution to the problem, I think there is an obvious beginning.

We as students must take partial responsibility for breaking down the credibility of our education system, and we must fight to fix it. We must begin the difficult conversations that help students and teachers create a space for real learning because there are students who desire to learn, and they are frustrated by a system that winks at cheating and pretends to defend an honor system. True education is no longer happening in most classrooms, including in Ivy League universities. Can it return, or is a new space needed? 

Sammy Kelner is a rising high school junior. She participates in Harvard Model Congress and Model UN, and has done so since 2019. She is also a staff writer for her school paper, the current  student President of Key Club, and is working on a career in social justice and journalism. She writes regularly for The Teen Magazine and studies at The Writing College.