A Growing Concern Across America’s Campuses

A Growing Concern Across America’s Campuses

A Growing Concern Across America’s Campuses

There is a concerning trend emerging among college students. The reasons for this trend are unclear, but the implications for the future could be drastic.

Having assessed students’ mindset skills across the country and analyzing the data over the last four years, there is a concerning trend emerging across America’s campuses. Utilizing the MindVue Profile, a psychometric assessment used to assess levels of motivation, grit, resilience, and numerous other non-cognitive factors related to a variety of performance and positive life outcomes, there has been an ongoing trend developing among college students. We have not seen this trend with groups of professionals in workplace settings or graduate students but instead see it with undergraduate students in a wide array of higher education institutions, ranging from highly selective institutions, state-based universities, as well as at the community college level across the United States. It is a trend that is pervasive across numerous undergraduate student groups that we have assessed over the last four years.

So, what is this trend?

Students are scoring low in integrity. When compared to groups of adults in the workforce, many of these student groups are, on average, obtaining integrity scores that are nearly half of what is seen with adults in workplace settings.

In recognizing this common occurrence and trying to understand what is driving these concerning outcomes, we have had numerous conversations with higher education leaders, faculty, and students to understand what is going on. What might explain why students are not feeling they are doing things the right way, being honest and trustworthy, and feeling they are being ethical? While there is not a single definitive answer for why these results are happening, there are a few hypotheses that have emerged.

Competition, Pressure, and Stress

One potential explanation driving these low integrity scores may be the pressure-cooker many students experience. Students feel an incredible amount of pressure to succeed. Driven by the priorities of being top-achieving students, many undergraduates report acknowledging that integrity takes a back seat in their pursuit to excel. Numerous students hold a utilitarian view of ethics where students justify cheating to enhance their likelihood of success. Cheating can be especially common among groups of students that struggle to manage the challenges of student life. When stress is high, students are more likely to cut corners and do whatever is necessary to increase their chances of success.

Ethical Fading

Among many student groups, there is often a culture of cheating where students acknowledge that everyone is doing it. This growing trend appears to be an example of ethical fading, where students see their friends cheat without any consequences. In turn, when seeing their fellow students around them engage in this unethical behavior, the cheating gets normalized. This can then lead students to rationalize in their own minds why engaging in the unethical behavior is justified, which perpetuates the behavior within a group. On top of this, students hear daily stories of public figures – politicians, influencers, and others in popular culture – engaging in unethical behavior and having few ramifications for doing so. As a result, it makes students feel today that cheating and engaging in unethical behavior is no big deal...and therefore justifiable.

Fixation on the Self

With camera phones first emerging in 2000, the vast majority of Gen Z has had every moment of their lives captured on cameras. Known as the selfie-generation, there may be a heightened level of self-centeredness among younger populations, who aim to present themselves on social media in a manner to garner attention and followers. Sometimes, however, students present themselves in a manner that they acknowledge is not completely true. This may lead these students to experience a state of cognitive dissonance, where the person feels they are not presenting their true self but instead an idolized version of their self, which is not accurate and honest. Perhaps this can also explain why college students may not feel a stronger sense of integrity.

Access and Opportunity

Let’s face it - in today’s systems of education, it is easy to cheat. There exists a myriad of tools that make it quite simple for students to cross the line. Students have access to numerous resources that provide them with ample opportunity to engage in cheating behavior. With the advent of artificial intelligence, that process is now even easier. If fact, it is anticipated that artificial intelligence will likely push the standards of society to the point where it will be forced to redefine what is considered ethical in the years ahead.

Secularization of Society

A fifth potential explanation of why we are seeing integrity scores so low among college-aged students might be tied to the secularization of America. With more than one-third of Gen Z identifying as religiously unaffiliated, fewer younger individuals are attending places of worship. Historically, these places of worship for many of the world’s religions would serve as important centers of education and training on moral philosophy. As religious affiliation declines, younger populations may not be having as much opportunity to hear messages promoting honesty, integrity, and ethics. With research supporting that religiosity is a predictor of students’ attitudes toward cheating as well as cheating behavior, could it be that the decrease in religious affiliation may be a contributing factor to students’ decreased sense of integrity?

Living in an Anonymous World

In today’s world, it is quite easy for a student to live an anonymous life. Another possible contributor for these low integrity scores may be that students do not have the same sense that “someone is watching”. With more lives being lived online, it is easy to live an anonymous life free of watchful eyes. If a person makes a mistake, it is easier to develop a new identity online and move on with their life. Because of this, there may not be the same pressure to avoid cheating that previous generations experienced when having to face the consequences of their decisions with the community around them.

Persistent Guilt

An additional potential explanation of why we are seeing such low integrity scores among students could be the persistent state of guilt many students experience. Perhaps it is not the case that students are truly lacking integrity but rather just internally feeling that they are not living their life as they should. Many students feel that no matter what they do, they are always doing something wrong. For example, by drinking water from a plastic bottle, students now recognize that their plastic bottle may not only end up polluting the ocean but may also fill their body with tiny plastic particles. As a result, some students feel guilty and believe they are a bad person for these actions. Students receive loud messages online and on social media proclaiming how their actions are not living up to the standards their social groups deem appropriate. Students may grow sensitive to these messages making them feel their actions are detrimental to society.

With Age Comes Wisdom (and Integrity)

Finally, it may be possible that these trends are nothing new. Previous research has demonstrated that honesty tends to increase with age. Every older person reading this article can think back on actions from their younger years that they regret today. In our own research at MindVue, we have found there to be a slight correlation between age and the integrity scale of the MindVue Profile. It could be possible that these low integrity scores among college students are simply a normal part of human development. As we get older, perhaps we learn the lessons from our mistakes and develop more integrity.

In summary, today’s college students will be tomorrow’s leaders. As we work to equip our future leaders and workforce, integrity is something we should pay attention to. Yet, there has been a notable trend over the last several years of seeing significantly lower scores when assessing college students’ integrity. While the reasons for this trend are unclear, it is likely due to a multitude of factors. Equipped with this insight, it is our hope to bring attention to these findings so that productive conversations can happen to further understand this trend, and importantly, develop solutions for how we can address it.

So, what do you think? What do you feel might be driving this trend? Should this be a cause for concern? And, if so, what should we do about it?

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