American higher education is at a crossroads. A college degree is as important as ever for young people entering the workforce, yet access to a quality education still seems out of reach for too many. Tuition costs, student debt, culture wars on campus and the lingering threat of COVID-19 have discouraged many from going to college – a milestone on the path to achieving the American Dream.
Now there is another threat to our higher ed system – one that threatens the quality of college education itself. New tools, sold to students as “study aids,” that are actually sophisticated and professionalized platforms that provide students with many of the tools they would need to cheat.
With a market cap of $10 billion, the most infamous and well-funded, Chegg, markets homework help, test preparation and textbook sales to college students. An examination of its business model and media reporting on its student consumers, however, suggests that the Chegg’s meteoric rise is based on the ease with which students have used or misused it to blatantly cheat on exams.
The American Consumer Institute recently launched the Academic Integrity Project to highlight systemic cheating on college campuses and work with educators, policymakers and students to discourage behavior that threatens the value of a U.S. education. This issue is too important to ignore with broad implications for our entire society.
A Forbes investigation recently surveyed 52 students who are regular Chegg users – and 48 of them admitted they use the platform to cheat on their schoolwork. They are able to tap into Chegg’s network of 70,000 contractors, mostly based in India, who give real-time “help” online, including to students who are actively taking online exams. As many classes have gone online, these students are essentially submitting exam questions in real time to subject matter experts for step-by-step answers.
Educators are beginning to take notice. According to Forbes’ reporting, Texas A&M found that hundreds of finance students used the platform last year to cheat on tests. In spring 2020, Georgia Tech announced its determination that physics students used Chegg to cheat on tests. Boston University and the University of Virginia have made similar findings. And since December 2020, hundreds of cadets from the West Point, U.S. Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy have been suspected of using online resources to cheat, with many eventually being expelled.
Students themselves are admitting to using Chegg to cheat as well. According to Forbes, a student at the University of Portland summarized the temptation succinctly: “If I don’t want to learn the material, I use Chegg to get the answers.”
The broader implications for our country are worrying. America’s economic competitiveness on the global stage is due in part to our world-class higher education system. Colleges and universities are already facing major headwinds: COVID-19 has depressed enrollment, freedom of speech fights on campuses have reached a fever pitch and highly publicized student loan debt loads are causing prospective students to look elsewhere for postsecondary training.
American employers need an educated workforce. If this cheating is not stemmed, what will the returns on this investment mean for long-term productivity of our future workforce? How can we expect to maintain our economic and cultural leadership in the world?
The answer is not to discourage the pursuit of a higher education; we need to shore up our academic system and ensure that students are provided a rigorous collegiate environment that prioritizes learning and growth. A four-year education marked by automated cheating threatens the entire higher education ecosystem.
However, change starts locally. University leadership and professors, in tandem with coaches and student organizations, must take a stand against academic misconduct. By putting in place strong protocols to identify and punish cheating, we can maintain the superiority of the American higher education system and continue our country’s leadership on the global stage.
This commentary was published in the Morning Consult