When it was time for Sam Beyda, then a freshman at Columbia University, to take his Calculus I midterm, the professor told students they had 90 minutes.
But the exam would be administered online. And even though every student was expected to take it alone, in their dorms or apartments or at the library, it wouldn’t be proctored. And they had 24 hours to turn it in.
“Anyone who hears that knows it’s a free-for-all,” Beyda told me.
Beyda, an economics major, said students texted each other answers; looked up solutions on Chegg, a crowdsourced website with answers to exam questions; and used calculators, which were technically verboten.
He finished the exam in under an hour, he said. Other students spent two or three hours on it. Some classmates paid older students who had already taken the course to do it for them.
“Professors just don’t care,” he told me.
For decades, campus standards have been plummeting. The hallowed, ivy-draped buildings, the stately quads, the timeless Latin mottos—all that tradition and honor have been slipping away. That’s an old story. Then Covid struck and all bets were off. With college kids doing college from their bedrooms and smartphones, and with the explosion of new technology, cheating became not just easy but practically unavoidable. “Cheating is rampant,” a Princeton senior told me. “Since Covid there’s been an increasing trend toward grade inflation, cheating, and ultimately, academic mediocrity.”
Now that students are back on campus, colleges are having a hard time putting the genie back in the bottle. Remote testing combined with an array of tech tools—exam helpers like Chegg, Course Hero, Quizlet, and Coursera; messaging apps like GroupMe and WhatsApp; Dropbox folders containing course material from years past; and most recently, ChatGPT, the AI that can write essays—have permanently transformed the student experience.
“It’s the Wild West when it comes to using emerging technologies and new forms of access to knowledge,” Gregory Keating, who has a joint appointment at USC’s Department of Philosophy and Gould School of Law, told me. “Faculties and administrations are scrambling to keep up.”
Amy Kind, a philosophy professor at Claremont McKenna, said that, at the prestigious liberal arts college just east of Los Angeles, “Cheating is a big concern among the faculty.”
Nor do students have much incentive to turn back the clock: they’re getting better grades for less work than ever.
Exhibit A: Greye Dunn, a recent Boston University graduate who majored in international relations and minored in Spanish. Dunn said he never cheated per se, but he benefited handsomely from the new, lower standards. His pre-Covid GPA was just north of 3.0; during Covid, he averaged a 3.5. And he knows plenty of students who flouted the rules.
“Many students want the credential, and they just want the easiest way to get that,” Gabriel Rossman, a sociology professor at UCLA, told me.
A sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious business school, who declined to give me her name, said: “They’re here for the Wharton brand, a 4.0 GPA, and to party.”
“The students see school as a stepping stone,” Beyda told me. He meant they went on to graduate school or to jobs at consulting firms like McKinsey or Bain or in finance at Goldman Sachs, and then a spouse, a house, children, private school, vacations in Provence—all the nice things in life.
“Anything that you miss, you can just learn on YouTube,” he said.
This is how it works, the University of Pennsylvania sophomore told me:
This past semester, in her Intro to Accounting class, students took the midterm online—but in a proctored classroom using a browser that alerted teaching assistants if anyone navigated out of the exam in search of illicit information. To access the browser, students had to log in with an individual code given to them after they showed up for the exam.
Sounds pretty airtight.
Not so fast.
No one checked IDs to make sure the students enrolled in the class were the same students taking the final. Cheaters in the class paid fellow classmates—the ones who stayed in the proctored exam room—up to $100 to send them the codes so they could log in from outside the room, where they were free to look up information on their phones or brainstorm answers together. In case the Olds got smart and thought to track students’ IP addresses—that is, where they actually were—students reserved study rooms in the same building as the exam room, Huntsman Hall, making it appear as though they were physically there. (It’s unclear whether any proctors thought to check.)
The average on the midterm was around 80 percent. In past years, it was closer to 60 or 70 percent. “It’s not that the teachers got miraculously better at teaching the content or that the kids are smarter,” the University of Pennsylvania sophomore told me.
She added that the class was graded on a curve. “I’m getting screwed over for doing the right thing,” she said. “It’s a disadvantage not to cheat.” The student received a C on the test.
Wharton’s Accounting Department did not respond to requests for comment.
A former Cornell University student told me that when she was enrolled there, a fellow undergraduate was able to manipulate the URL on a problem set posted by a physics professor to get access to the professor’s full archive. That gave him—and anyone else in the class who asked for it— access to exam questions.
At Tufts, sources told me that crib sheets have gone digital, with students uploading course material to their Notes app and using their Apple watches to access information while taking tests.
At Boston University, you can get a friend to write your papers for $20 to $30 a page, according to one recent graduate.
And at Dartmouth—once the reserve of the WASPiest of the WASPs, in beautiful, cloistered Hanover, New Hampshire—an anonymous source told me that students have developed the habit of breaking into groups of four when given online multiple-choice quizzes. Each guesses a different answer (A, B, C, or D) to each question. Because students get two chances to take the quiz—why that is, no one seems to know—they all have the right answer by the time they take the quiz for a second time. And wind up with a perfect score.
They don’t even have to read the question. If you’re reading the question, you’re doing it wrong.
Professors describe feeling demoralized—“I didn’t get into academia to be a cop,” a CUNY professor in the English department told me. Faculty at other schools likewise describe feeling helpless when it comes to calling out cheating, or even catching it. There’s always another app, another workaround.
Plus, it’s not necessarily smart to report bad behavior.
“Nontenured faculty have no real choice but to compromise their professional standards and the quality of the students’ own education to take a customer’s-always-right approach,” Gabriel Rossman at UCLA told me.
That’s because lower level courses, where cheating is more rampant, tend to be taught by nontenured faculty with little job security—the kind of people who fear getting negative student evaluations. “Students can be tyrants,” the CUNY English professor said. “It’s like Yelp. The only four people who are going to review the restaurant are the people who are mad.”
If student evaluations are treated like whiny but very important restaurant reviews, it’s partially because the food (a.k.a. tuition, room, and board)costs upward of $70,000 per year. The College Board recently reported that 55 percent of the class of 2020 graduated with student debt, and that the average debt was $28,400. It’s lamentable but not surprising that students and parents increasingly view the college administration as providing them with a very expensive piece of paper—a diploma—and professors, above all, as a hindrance when it comes to service delivery.
Linda Griffith, an engineering professor at MIT, said bloated college bureaucracies—Harvard has roughly the same number of undergraduate students as administrators, and Stanford meets its 17,680-strong student population with approximately 15,750 administrators—are meant to cater to the every whim and need of an increasingly customer service–oriented student body.
When Griffith began teaching in 1991, it was rare but not unheard of for a student to ask to take a final after everyone else—if, say, someone’s mother died in a car crash, or a falling tree branch landed one in the emergency room. “This term,” she said, “I got seven emails out of my 90 students in the days before the final telling me they couldn’t take it.”
Greye Dunn, the recent Boston University graduate, recalled a class he took senior year—on world poverty—and all these underclassmen, who had never known a pre-pandemic college life, pressuring the professor into giving them 24 hours to take the exam. At home. “They pushed her to the point where they made cheating an option, and then they fully exploited that just so they could keep staring at their perfect GPA,” he said.
Most professors, students said, grasp that the American campus has changed—big time. That the paradigm has shifted. Professors want a comfortable perch that looks nice on their résumés where they can write their articles and books and get ahead—just like the students want to get ahead, just like the universities want to get ahead. (Sam Beyda, the Columbia economics major, pointed out that his own school’s administration had been accused of manipulating data to game the U.S. News & World Report rankings.)
A recent Yale University graduate said his professors had encouraged him to get diagnosed with ADHD so he could get more time to finish homework or take exams. One student he knew received extra time for “academic-induced depression.” He smirked when he said it.
“I’m the sucker, though,” he told me. “That person probably has a 3.8 GPA.” The Yale grad ended up with a 3.1.
And now there’s ChatGPT, which many professors think may be the proverbial final nail in the coffin.
Late last year, ChatGPT (GPT stands for “generative pre-trained transformer”) was released by the tech company OpenAI. ChatGPT represents the next step for artificial intelligence; it’s much less clunky, much easier to use, and much more advanced than its predecessors, offering answers that are eerily human. Last month, a Wharton professor said the program was able to receive a B on a final exam in the school’s MBA program. It also passed a medical licensing exam and a ton of law school ones.
The website of the platform Moonbeam, which uses OpenAI’s GPT tech, informs visitors it can “help you write essays, stories, articles, blogs, and other long form content.” Moonbeam’s founder, John Shahawy, who graduated from Florida State University with a 3.0 GPA, told me he has tens of thousands of users.
Gabriel Rossman, the UCLA sociologist, called platforms like Moonbeam and the students who use them “immoral.”
Shahawy shrugged at that. “The students that wanted to learn were always going to learn, and the students that didn’t want to, and were just writing words to get a grade, are just going to be more efficient at doing that,” he said, adding excitedly: “I think this might be the real Web3.”
On January 2, a Princeton University computer science major named Edward Tian—who may be the most hated man on campus—tweeted: “I spent New Years building GPTZero—an app that can quickly and efficiently detect whether an essay is ChatGPT or human written.”
So now it’s nerd vs. nerd, and one of the nerds is going to win—probably whoever gets more venture funding. Everything is up in the air.
Amy Kind, the Claremont McKenna philosophy professor, is pessimistic. “We’re headed for one of these dystopian societies in science fiction where we just outsource all of our writing and projects and thinking to computers, and they do it for us.” Soon, she added, “we’ll be at the mercy of our future computer overlords.”