How communications can protect your brand from a cheating crisis.

We’ve all heard about pro-athletes who get busted for cheating their way through senior year. And the consequential backlash directed at the university for not enforcing a stricter no-cheating policy? Yikes. 

These high profile scandals are just the tip of the iceberg — cheating at higher ed. institutions has become as common as Friday night frat parties. But just because it’s pervasive doesn’t mean you can’t head it off at the pass. We’re guessing you already know you can’t afford not to. 

The world relies on institutions like yours to shape the minds and skills of the next generation. To hone potential talent into capable contributors ready to make a difference at the organizations that hire them and in their communities. Quite simply: those who cheat their way through are not prepared to do that. And that means addressing and preventing cheating is both a credibility issue and an ethical one. 

If you’re not confident about your higher ed.’s cheating prevention policies and methodologies, remedy that first. Because in this article we’re tackling how to talk about it, and the role communications can play in prevention and reputation protection. 

Higher ed. institutions: Neglect cheating issues at your own risk.  

Sweeping this omnipresent reality under the rug doesn’t do your reputation — or your students — any favors.

It doesn’t matter if it was one exam, one term paper, or an entire class. Each time you pass a student who has managed to get by with more than a little help, you risk a hit on your institution’s reputation as a credible place of integrity.

The bottom line is, handing a student their diploma, certificate, or degree is a full-throttled endorsement. You’re confidently saying to your students and the organizations they apply to that they are fully capable of everything under their specialty’s roof.

But if they’ve cheated their way through, they haven’t really learned what they’ve needed to. Send a student out into the working world unprepared, and as a result, your institution will become known as one that graduates unprepared individuals.

Obviously this isn’t an issue any school wants to admit is a problem for them — so most cases are handled quietly. But when you avoid publicly speaking out about incidents of plagiarism or a mysterious case of all As in a biology course, you’re missing an opportunity to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

No institution is immune. Admitting your school has experienced cheating doesn’t mean you’re failing. But not addressing it does. 

To thwart cheating (and the perception that you’re okay with it) you can’t be afraid to discuss it. 

Connecting your communications plan to your higher ed.’s academic integrity initiatives.

Being forthright about your philosophy and policy on cheating and plagiarism, including monitoring and prevention practices, deters students tempted to cheat. It also upholds your institution’s reputation for truth and integrity by planting a flag

First, you need to admit that cheating and plagiarism are indeed issues. How can they not be when so many students increasingly take at least one class online with little to no oversight? 

If a cheating scandal has rocked your school, acknowledge and apologize that it has happened. Next, turn to action. Talk about what you’re doing to change it — and be specific. 

Even if you haven’t experienced a publicly-known plagiarism faux pas, talk about it proactively.

  • Identify who at your institution is responsible for strategizing and executing your no-tolerance policy.
  • Incorporate anti-plagiarism training into your student orientation, including the predatory practices of contract cheating companies.
  • Make sure your teaching teams are trained to know what to look for — and that their students know it.
  • Establish programs to support students when they get overwhelmed and feel the urge to take the easy way out.
  • Regularly publish the nature and number of issues you’ve detected without naming students. 

If you don’t have all the answers yet, that’s ok. Be transparent with your stakeholders, anyway. All they want to know is that you’re serious about the issue, that it’s a high priority, and that you’re working on it. Then, be swift in communicating your updates.

Support students in your messaging to combat stress, temptations, and criminal companies. 

Pursuing a higher education comes with its fair share of stressors. On top of that, your students have lived through a pandemic that has flipped their world upside down. Everything that has happened, coupled with an expected overwhelming workload, means it may be more tempting than ever to cheat. 

Being in a state of overwhelm is no excuse to take the easy way out. But it does mean you should lean into empathy and find ways to offer meaningful support. Whether it’s through implementing extra mental health initiatives or simply by communicating all that your institution already offers, let them know you care.

“Increasingly, contract companies subject students to harassment and bullying to get them to agree to additional services and in extreme cases, are resorting to blackmail…”

Sarah Elaine Eaton, academic misconduct expert

Finally, be aware of all the contract cheating companies cropping up, which include essay mills, assignment completion services, thesis-writing and exam personation. It has turned into a global, all-online $15 billion industry.

These companies are using social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Reddit to offer services disguised as heroic and life-saving. They make higher ed. institutions out to be the bad guy, saying you have no real desire to support students. Once the students fall for their gimmick, however, it’s harder for them to pull away. 

Academic misconduct expert Sarah Elaine Eaton reports, “Increasingly, contract companies subject students to harassment and bullying to get them to agree to additional services and in extreme cases, are resorting to blackmail, including charging the student’s credit card a fee and threatening to report their misconduct if they try to stop it.” 

Make these companies and their sinister tactics known to your students. Communicate that they will not help, but rather will hurt them. Talk about ways you are indeed lending support to students, from flexible office hours to group study sessions, tutors, and beyond. And remind them that their reputation depends on it, too.

Establish your higher ed. institution as leading the charge against academic dishonesty.

If every higher ed. institution was vocal about their experiences with cheating and plagiarism, it would likely be less of an issue. At the very least, it would come with a positive ripple effect. 

  • It would make alumni proud of their accomplishments and have pride in their institution.

Have your president, deans and faculty pen thought leadership essays around the subject and elevate your school as one not easily fooled. Differentiate yourself as a place that takes pride in its demonstrated ability to uphold its tenets. 

The longer you stay quiet about your school’s stance on cheating, the worse off your students are — and the more your reputation takes a hit. Don’t stall. Speak up. 

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