What Are the Negative Impacts of Cheating on Students in College?

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Cheating on exams in college has never been a more serious problem, with scandals in institutions ranging from Harvard to the U.S. Naval Academy. The negative impacts of academic dishonesty affect institutions, administrators, professors, and test-takers alike, devaluing their degrees and leading to possible legal and financial repercussions. Oftentimes the testing industry doesn’t talk about negative repercussions that can affect students if a culture of cheating persists in an institution. But because of the negative outcomes that can result from cheating, it’s vital for institutions to invest in security measures to prevent and detect cheating on exams.

In this article, we will explore the reasons test-takers have for cheating on exams and how it affects those test-takers. We’ll also look at ways institutions can mitigate the prevalence of cheating and prevent unwanted fallout.

Moral Disengagement and Cheating Culture

There are a number of methods that test-takers employ to gain an unfair advantage on exams. They also have a number of motives for doing so. These motives can range from the personal to the professional. We’ll focus on two of the major reasons here.

Academic Pressure

Because of the high stakes of many exams, test-takers may feel increased pressure to do well. They may believe—and it may well be true—that passing an exam is necessary for them to continue with their major, graduate on time, or even get a job.

The belief that failing an exam could lead to negative consequences can cause test-takers to feel enormous pressure to cheat on exams in order to avoid those consequences. A recent study by Turnitin shows that 90% of students believe their peers cheat on exams. Though the same study says students understand how academic integrity is crucial for the assessment to be meaningful, they are still tempted to cheat because they believe that cheating is common.

Moral Disengagement

Graphic depiction of 90% of students with the stat: 90% of students believe their peers cheat on exams.
Data from Turnitin Student and Faculty Survey 2022

This perception of a culture of cheating can lead test-takers to believe they will be at a disadvantage if they do not cheat, since so many of their peers are. A culture of cheating, combined with this belief that not cheating puts a test-taker at a disadvantage, can lead to moral disengagement.

Moral disengagement is a process by which a person—in this case, the test-taker—gradually disengages from their personal morality. This process can lead to a test-taker cheating on exams, even though they believe cheating to be wrong. When test-takers perceive a culture of cheating, they see the value of the exam being lowered. In combination with their perception that their peers are cheating on the exam, this devaluation can lead them to put less moral weight on the concept of cheating, making it easier for them to engage in cheating behavior.

The same Turnitin study referenced previously asked students and faculty to determine whether certain behaviors counted as cheating. The study found that 18% of students did not think the use of unauthorized materials on an exam counted as cheating. A staggering 31% of students believed that hiring someone to write an essay for them is not cheating or is only somewhat cheating. Whether or not a student views a behavior as cheating can have a direct impact on how likely they are to engage in behavior that may lead to a culture of cheating at an institution.

How Test-Takers Can Be Affected by Cheating on Exams

The impacts of cheating on test-takers can be varied and consequential, both on those who engage in cheating behavior and those who don’t. For those who do cheat, the most obvious consequences are academic. Cheating on an exam can result in failing that test or—in many cases—failing the class entirely. Academic consequences can go beyond one class as well, sometimes leading to suspension or expulsion from the program or the institution entirely.

Impacts on Students Who Cheat

If allowed to continue, cheating behaviors can be habit-forming. Even if a test-taker feels that cheating is wrong, they may be tempted to engage in cheating behavior on a specific exam or assignment that is of significant value to their degree or program. If they give in to that temptation, it will be easier to do so the next time. Like many forms of dishonesty, cheating can be a slippery slope that may lead to more substantial behaviors in the long run.

When test-takers who cheat on exams are not found out, the effects can spread out into the wider world, beyond the test, class, and college degree. When a test-taker who cheats passes their exam, there can be dire consequences for their employment. They may find themselves hired for a job they are unqualified for, which could lead to a variety of unwanted results. Being unqualified could cost them a promotion, an assignment, or even their job. From the employer’s perspective, hiring an unqualified candidate leads to increased acquisition and firing costs, requiring them to replace incompetent workers. It could also lead to legal and financial repercussions for both employee and employer in a high-stakes job in an industry like medicine or finance, ultimately eroding the employer’s confidence in the exam program.

“The impacts of cheating on a program’s credibility and the students in that program can be devastating, but a robust academic honesty policy and clear communication of expectations can help prevent a culture of cheating. “

Ashley Norris, PhD, SVP, Strategic Communications and Policy

According to a recent study conducted by the ATP Workforce Skills Credentialing Security and Privacy Committee, over 80% of employers surveyed agreed that it is very important to be able to verify credential authenticity. If there is a history of test-takers cheating on a particular exam or a particular program’s exams, employers are much less likely to trust in that program’s credentials, which ends up hurting everyone associated with that program—test-takers and instructors included. 

Impacts on Students Who Don’t Cheat

The effects of cheating don’t only touch those who engage in cheating behavior. The reputational damage done to a program through a culture of cheating affects everyone in the program. In addition, students who don’t cheat can face unique consequences when cheating is allowed or perceived to be allowed.

When faculty believe there is a culture of cheating, they adjust their policies and responses accordingly. Often instructors will begin to police student behavior much more strictly when there is a perceived culture of cheating. This can mean putting undue pressure on academically honest students, causing them unnecessary stress and anxiety. This can negatively affect their performance on the exam and in the program as a whole.

When students believe there is a culture of cheating, it can affect the way they view their program and their participation in it. With enough of a change in this view, students may leave the program entirely. Students who believe their peers regularly cheat may begin to feel they are at a disadvantage if they do not also cheat. It can also lead them to question the accuracy of their own assessments. They may begin to feel that in order to succeed in their program, they also need to cheat. This can lead to the moral disengagement we discussed previously.

Strategies for Reducing Cheating on Exams

While the effects of cheating are numerous and can reach test-takers and institutions alike, there are ways to mitigate the incidents of cheating and, therefore, the consequences of that attempted cheating. Here are some strategies to consider:  

  • Mitigation Strategy 1: Evidence shows that the mere inclusion of a human proctor can lessen incidents of cheating. Adding a human element lets students know you take academic honesty seriously.
  • Mitigation Strategy 2: Be proactive in communicating your program’s misconduct policies. Knowing that an institution, instructor, or exam deliverer is aware of the potential for cheating can both curtail possible cheating and assure honest students that those who attempt to cheat are being watched and—hopefully—caught. 
  • Mitigation Strategy 3: Be clear in your communication, both verbal and written, about what test-takers can expect on exam day. A simple reminder that there is a process for the exam indicates that the instructor or exam administrator cares about the outcome of their exam. 


Cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty may be on the rise, but a proactive approach, a clearly communicated academic dishonesty policy, and an open discussion of consequences of cheating can help. With these measures in place, and an online proctoring platform that works with you to prevent cheating rather than punish it, your program can avoid the negative impacts discussed previously. Your test-takers will have an overall better experience, and your exam program will maintain its integrity.  

Learn more about how to prepare your test-takers with better communication by watching our recent webinar on the topic.