What Are the Financial and Legal Costs of Academic Cheating in Higher Education?

| Blog Articles | Share:  

Academic cheating in higher education institutions can rock a degree program—or an entire institution—to its core. Beyond the reputational repercussions and harm to test-takers, a cheating scandal at a university can have serious financial consequences. In some cases, it can even lead to legal repercussions. The fallout from these incidents can cause major harm to an academic institution.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the possible legal and financial costs of academic cheating in higher education. We’ll also explore how they might affect your institution.

What Financial and Legal Harm Can Academic Cheating in Higher Education Cause?

The accumulating financial costs of academic cheating. A series of coin stacks accompanied by upward arrows, indicating the cumulative effect of these costs.

With so much possibility for institutional harm—not to mention harm to test-takers, who rely on the credibility of their exams to convey worth in their degree—it can be difficult to untangle the potential damages from each other. But there are 4 key financial or legal effects that academic dishonesty can cause: loss of exam questions, loss of time and effort, potential lawsuits, and loss of funding or accreditation.

Loss of Exam Questions

One method test-takers may use to cheat on an exam is to harvest—or steal—exam questions from previous test-takers. Once the exam items are exposed, the exam loses credibility, and the test items must be replaced. This can be an enormous cost to an institution, either financially or in terms of faculty time and effort. It is possible to protect your exam by copyrighting it, but gaining a copyright can be tedious, costly, and nearly impossible to enforce. Many faculty and staff members don’t find the process worth the time, money, or effort. What’s more, even copyrighted items must be replaced if they’re compromised.

If faculty members create your exam questions, they must take valuable time out of their schedules to recreate exams. This takes them away from other activities that would be more valuable to them, such as research and teaching. Depending on the discipline or class size, you may not have an item bank prepared to pull new questions from. This results in even more time taken away from other tasks in order to create new exam items. It also takes a lot of time to develop large amounts of questions, so this could cause a suspension in testing and delay degrees or graduation dates.

Loss of Time and Effort Spent Investigating an Incident

Every incident of academic cheating in higher education must be thoroughly investigated. The test-taker deserves the right to defend themselves, and the institution deserves the right to discover the truth.

Ultimately, this can result in a lengthy process. First, the institution must determine if academic misconduct did indeed occur. This can mean faculty, staff, or administration must review the evidence, determine if a test-taker was engaged in cheating behavior, and decide upon the consequences. If they determine there was misconduct, there can be an escalation, where the test-taker may appeal the decision, requiring the institution to establish an appeals committee or judicial committee.

When all these steps are laid out, it’s easy to see how the time and money spent investigating an incident—or even a suspected incident—of cheating can rapidly build. Your institution and your staff end up paying the cost.

“Your faculty’s time is priceless, and you want them spending it on things like teaching, research, and publishing, not on investigating cheating or recreating their exams from scratch.”

Dr. Ashley Norris, SVP of Strategic Growth Initiatives and Compliance, Meazure Learning

Potential Lawsuits From Test-Takers

When a test-taker is accused of cheating, the incident can sometimes extend beyond the institution or program. It can lead to legal issues as well as financial ones. If the test-taker feels they have been wrongly accused but were disciplined for the incident anyway—whether by failing the class or something as severe as expulsion—they may take the matter to court. It may also be that the institution does not have solid evidence to prove the misconduct. If so, it could face a lengthy trial and appeals process.

A lawsuit or appeal—especially if the test-taker wins—could cause devastating reputational damages for the program. This can lead to decreased enrollment—another financial cost.

Loss of Funding and/or Accreditation

If a cheating scandal is big enough, it can lead to even more severe, institution-wide costs. A significant culture of cheating may cost a program its accreditation. In many disciplines, losing accreditation can be a blow from which an institution never recovers.

Consider the recent cheating scandal involving three Florida schools accused of handing out nursing credentials to test-takers who had engaged in academic dishonesty. Every one of those institutions had to shut down over one program’s failure to prevent widespread cheating. This does not even touch on the damage that passing unqualified nursing candidates can have on public health at large.

Even if your institution keeps its accreditation, when the mainstream media picks up on a story involving a cheating scandal, it rarely takes the time to follow up with an institution to see how the institution dealt with the scandal and what policies it has put in place to prevent future instances. This can cause irreparable damage to an institution’s funding and enrollment.


It’s easy to see the harm that cheating can have on a program or individual exam, but it’s important to recognize how much farther that harm can extend and all the potential ripple effects. From time spent on replacing exam questions to the possibility of lawsuits and even the loss of accreditation, unchecked cheating in academic institutions can be devastating—to a test-taker, a program, or even the entire institution.

Combatting that misconduct can seem like a daunting task, but there are methods you can put in place to help reduce instances of cheating. Here are 8 tactics you can use to help mitigate academic misconduct at your institution without spending more.