By the Numbers: Academic Integrity in Higher Education

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Academic integrity is a perpetual concern for higher-ed institutions. There’s no denying it, especially as overwhelming evidence continues to mount about the scope and consequences of dishonest behavior. The depth of this discourse suggests that the core challenges of maintaining integrity still exist even if the methods for doing so evolve. For higher-ed administrators, educators, instructional designers, and decision-makers, the message is clear: Tackling this pervasive challenge demands a unified and holistic approach.

The State of Academic Integrity in Higher Ed

Studies and surveys have repeatedly highlighted the prevalence of cheating and its negative implications on the credibility of academic credentials, student outcomes, and the overall educational environment. But cheating in higher education is a complex and persistent issue, involving a tangled web of direct and indirect causes. Far from being a black-and-white matter, it requires a nuanced understanding of the entire integrity landscape.

Here are a few noteworthy research findings and some important context behind the numbers.

Between 50% and 70% of students admit to cheating during their academic career.1

Two students sitting side-by-side at a table, with one student looking out of the corner of his eye at the other student's laptop computer.

This finding has remained relatively consistent in recent years yet is alarming for several reasons. The first and most obvious: Dishonest behavior is widespread, being demonstrated by more than half of the undergrad student population.

Second, researchers from many fields have acknowledged that self-reported data about illicit or inappropriate behavior tends to be undercounted. Higher education is no exception, with numerous reports concluding that self-reported rates of cheating are notoriously and unreliably low. In fact, new research reveals that more than half of survey respondents admitted to cheating but over 25% also admitted that they lied on one or more questions within the survey. What’s more, their admission rate spiked by nearly threefold when the respondents were indirectly—rather than directly—asked. This discrepancy highlights the sensitivity of the issue, showing how students are particularly reluctant to admit to cheating when asked directly.

Third, it suggests that a significant percentage of students might not fully grasp the long-term consequences of academic dishonesty—not just on their personal integrity but also on the value of their degree and future professional credibility. This assumption is backed by Wiley’s recent report on academic integrity, which found that 33% of students were not concerned about the effects of cheating on their ability to learn course material or succeed after graduation.

Among students who cheat, 71% state that pressure to get good grades is a major reason.2

This finding sheds light on the psychological and environmental pressures that can drive students toward dishonest practices. Root causes often extend beyond mere opportunism to deeper issues of stress, competition, and unrealistic expectations. Indeed, students cite the following as common factors in their decision to cheat: heavy workloads, pressure to justify substantial tuition costs, and the feeling that some course content isn’t relevant or practical. These factors, combined with a competitive academic environment, create a hotbed for dishonest practices.

Between 25% and 90% of students believe their peers engage in dishonest behavior.3

When students think that academic misconduct is common and perhaps even necessary to stay competitive, it can create a culture where dishonesty is normalized and, in some ways, rationalized. This can lead to a concept called “moral disengagement,” where students disconnect from their sense of right vs. wrong in response to environmental pressures.

These interconnected factors—high stress, the temptation of academic dishonesty, perceptions of widespread cheating, and moral disengagement—create a problematic cycle in higher education. And it not only affects academic integrity but also impacts students’ moral and ethical development. In response, institutions need to examine their educational environment, the pressures placed on their students, and the support systems they offer.

Despite rising rates of academic dishonesty, less than 2% of students report being caught cheating.4

Academic cheating is becoming more common. According to new research, nearly 29% of students reported an increase in their cheating behavior since the start of 2020. However, despite the increasing prevalence of this behavior, less than 2% of the students say they were actually caught.

In addition to the factors we’ve already explored, the report cites another potential reason for this rise in cheating rates: Students are increasingly proficient with digital tools. This situation is further complicated by the pace at which higher-ed institutions are adapting their own technological capabilities, course design, resources, and policies to effectively address dishonest behavior.

So, what strategies should higher-ed professionals consider?

Best Practices to Maintain Academic Integrity

Classroom setting, with students seated at long tables and working on laptop computers. In the foreground, an instructor is helping a student while another student looks on.

Yes, the concept of an “arms race” between cheating techniques and prevention methods still stands, where each side advances and counters in response to the other. However, we do know that some methods are particularly effective at deterring, detecting, and/or preventing integrity violations. Here are just a few:

Refresh Your Exam Strategies and Content

If you’re an educator or instructional designer seeking ways to curb cheating, consider implementing the following exam strategies:

  • Use more open-ended questions that challenge students to apply knowledge rather than recall facts
  • Create question pools that minimize the chances of cheating through predictability
  • Give more project-based assignments that align closely with real-world applications
  • Eliminate or reduce multiple-choice questions to encourage critical thinking
  • Assign more essays that require unique, individual responses
  • Update exam questions each semester

By adopting some of these practices, you’re not only curbing misconduct attempts but also enhancing the learning experience for your students. Why? Because these practices enable a deeper understanding of course material, requiring students to engage in authentic evaluations that better prepare them for the real world.

Proctor Your Exams

It’s imperative to proctor your exams. Not doing so is like leaving the doors to a bank unlocked overnight—why take the risk when so much is at stake?

If you need more persuasion on the impact of proctoring, consider these statistics: a stark contrast in cheating rates is evident, with 70% of students exhibiting dishonest behavior during unproctored exams compared to only 15% in proctored settings. Additionally, recent research has found that “students enrolled in . . . courses with required proctored exams scored much lower on the exams than students enrolled in the same courses with no exam proctoring requirement” and “a lack of . . . cheating is a strong explanation for the difference in proctored exam scores versus non-proctored exam scores in an online testing environment.”

A crucial factor in these rates is the fear of getting caught. According to a survey by Wiley, about 73% of students claim they’re less likely to cheat if there’s a risk of getting caught. This underscores how proctoring is an effective deterrent to dishonest behavior. It signals to students that an exam has value and is worth protecting, it raises the risk of detection, and it protects the efforts of honest students by potentially removing unfair results from competitive or comparative grading.

“Proctoring is an effective deterrent to dishonest behavior. It signals to students that an exam has value and is worth protecting, it raises the risk of detection, and it protects the efforts of honest students by potentially removing unfair results from competitive or comparative grading.”

Use Other Integrity Preservation Solutions

Technology both helps and hinders academic integrity. It can simplify research and analysis, but it can also make it easier for students to engage in dishonest testing practices. Given this dual edge, some tools can harness technology’s positive aspects to counteract its potential for misuse. Here are a few examples:

  • Secure browsers: These tools restrict students’ access to unauthorized resources (e.g., browser tabs, certain computer functionality, applications) during exams. This closes off common avenues for misconduct.
  • Plagiarism detection tools: Using sophisticated algorithms to identify outright plagiarism as well as subtle forms such as paraphrasing and swapped text, these tools help validate the authenticity of written submissions. The importance of this cannot be overstated amid the rise of generative AI.
  • LMSs equipped with analytics: Learning management systems can track patterns in student behavior that may indicate cheating, such as abrupt shifts in testing performance or time spent answering questions.


Academic dishonesty is complex, with many underlying causes and equally as many strategies for addressing them. However, by staying informed and taking a coordinated approach to mitigation, higher education professionals can ensure the value of academic achievements remains uncompromised in the face of evolving challenges.

To learn more about the state of academic integrity, check out our article “6 Key Themes Shaping the Future of Higher Education.”

  1. Psychology Today, “The Real Roots of Student Cheating,” (2023), ↩︎
  2. Wiley, “New Insights Into Academic Integrity: 2022 Update” (PDF file, May 2023), ↩︎
  3. Turnitin, “Student and Faculty Survey: Perceptions of Assessment and Academic Integrity” (PDF file, June 2022), ↩︎
  4. Journal of Research in Education, Volume 32, Issue 2, “Academic Cheating in Online and Live College Courses During the COVID Pandemic” ↩︎