Students Cheat Themselves Out of an Education

For most students, cheating remains a taboo to which they would never seriously consider resorting, but for some, the pressure to succeed and to reach that extra rung on the academic ladder proves too strong. And with the Internet providing just one of many ways with which to elude the system, the temptation to cheat and to plagiarize has perhaps never been so seductive. This reality was recently highlighted when Santa Monica College was embroiled in the scandal surrounding Eamonn Daniel Higgins.

Last week Higgins was formally charged with fraudulently assuming the identity of over 100 international students throughout a number of academic institutions in California, including SMC, in order to take exams under their name.

According to Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for immigration and customs enforcement (ICE), from 2002 to 2009 Higgins received up to $1,500 to complete final examinations and other classroom work for foreign students.

The full extent of SMC's involvement in the affair is as yet unknown. Kice said that while Higgins admitted to helping over 500 students during this time, ICE were only aware of around 100. She said that they have evidence showing Higgins was enrolled at SMC during this time period, but had yet to contact the college in order to ascertain the number of SMC international students who could have used Higgins' services.

According to Kice, seven students from Irvine Valley College already face criminal charges connected with misuse of visas. She added that as this is very much an "ongoing investigation." The exact reason compelling these students to hire Higgins remains unclear.

While instances of cheating on this scale remain relatively unusual, it is a subject that has rarely been more prevalent at SMC. Just recently, six SMC students were found to have cheated in an English 2 mid-term exam, submitting papers to their online class that were all suspiciously similar, as though written by the same person.

"Many students don't realize that they each have very distinctive writing voices," said Dr. Dana Del George, professor of English at SMC and the teacher who conducted that particular winter class. "It's like a finger print. Even before the mid-term, I had a gut feeling something was up."

Del George said that when she requested each student to come to her office, only three showed up, including someone masquerading as one of the students enrolled in the class.

"When he showed me his ID, the name matched that of one of my students but he didn't look like the person in the picture," said Del George, "when I asked him about it he said that he had recently "lost weight'…After asking him a few questions that only my students would know it soon became clear he was an [imposter]."

According to Del George, when the other students involved refused to meet her in person, she sought the help of Judy Penchansky, dean of student services, as is normal protocol. Through a number of impromptu written assignments, Penchansky was able to determine the veracity of the students.

Del George said that all the students involved were eventually given an "F" for the class (no harsher punishment could be imposed as it was their first such offense). The identity of the person who posed as one of the students remains a mystery.

It is a problem that casts a dark shadow over every department at SMC. Fran Manion, department chair of mathematics at SMC, said that modern technology has turned their fight against cheating into a constant struggle to anticipate new, more advanced, means of beating the system.

"Students are rather resourceful," said Manion. "Modern calculators with complex problem solving capabilities are making it hard for instructors to uncover cheating... One instructor even found a student Googling the results of an exam on an iPhone."

Manion said that she feels as though the math department "isn't on top of all the changes" in technology and admitted that it is impossible for her to hear about every single instance of cheating that occurs in the math department.

Cheating is on the rise at SMC. Judy Penchansky, whose task it is to deal with students who have been officially reported for academic dishonesty, said that in recent years she has noticed a definite increase in the number of students sent to her office.

This is corroborated by official statistics. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of SMC students officially reported for cheating rose by 134 percent, while the number of students in total who enrolled in classes rose by only 14.2 percent during the same period.

The findings infuriate some students at SMC. In an e-mail to the Corsair, Ronald Michel, a sociology major, said that it is grossly unfair to those students who work hard at their studies, and who would never consider resorting to unethical means to distort their academic record.

"If someone was to get into UCLA before me and they [had] cheated, I would be extremely annoyed," said Michel. "I look upon cheating in a negative way and wish people wouldn't do it because it just isn't fair to those of us that work very hard to get what we have. It is like anything else in life."

But despite the unwelcome hassle caused by the students caught cheating over the winter semester, Del George nevertheless understands the pressures that students face, and the stresses involved in achieving a certain grade in order to stand a fighting chance in the transfer process.

"I feel sorry for my winter cheaters, not only because they seem to be driven by fear but also because they clearly lack self-confidence," said Del George. "They don't believe that they are capable of achieving good results on their own."

Next week: A look at how SMC and other institutions are dealing with the problem of cheating, and ways in which it may be combated in the future.