According to a new survey, Harvard freshmen were more likely to have cheated on a problem set or homework assignment in high school than to have had sex. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
According to a new survey, Harvard freshmen were more likely to have cheated on a problem set or homework assignment in high school than to have had sex. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Harvard University recently welcomed a new crop of freshmen to campus. Members of the class of 2017 hail from more than 60 countries and 49 states. They bring distinct outlooks, talents and interests. Some of them also bring impressive experience at cheating.

In a survey of the incoming class done by the Harvard Crimson newspaper, 10 percent of respondents said they had cheated on an exam before arriving on campus. Seventeen percent admitted to cheating on a take-home assignment or paper, and 42 percent confessed to having done so on a problem set or homework assignment.

Almost 80 percent of the entering class -- more than 1,300 students -- responded to the online survey in August. (Not all responded to every question.) Among other interesting findings, 60 percent admitted to having tried alcohol prior to arriving on campus, while 22 percent had experimented with marijuana. Only 35 percent of surveyed freshmen had had sex before arriving on campus -- or as a Crimson article indelicately put it: “They scored well on the SATs, but it appears Harvard freshmen aren't quite as good at scoring in bed.”

We can probably let 18-year-olds sort out their own bedroom behavior (or lack thereof). The cheating statistic is a bit more alarming, if only because the university has spent the past year mired in various cheating-related debacles. At the end of August 2012, Harvard announced it was investigating about 125 students for cheating on a take-home final exam the previous spring. By February, the university said that more than half of those accused were forced to withdraw from school for as much as a year. The following month, tables turned as Harvard confirmed that administrators had snooped around the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans trying to pinpoint who had leaked confidential information about the scandal. Later in March, Harvard was stripped of four championship quiz bowl titles from 2009 to 2011 after a member of the team was found to have had advance access to portions of the tournament questions.

It doesn't look so good for Harvard to add to this litany by admitting a freshman class with a high proportion of self-proclaimed cheaters. Then again, we shouldn’t be overly harsh on Harvard; the percentages probably wouldn't be much different elsewhere. A New York Times article last year by Vivian Yee (while we’re on the topic of integrity, she’s a close friend) highlighted the prevalence of high-school cheating: “Michael Josephson, the president of the Josephson Institute, which researches ethics in society, said a 2010 survey of 40,000 high-school students found that 59 percent had cheated on a test during the previous year, with one in three admitting they had used the Internet to plagiarize -- and one in four admitting they had lied on the survey itself.”

In a subsequent Josephson survey of 23,000 high school students, taken in 2012, the proportion of admitted cheaters dropped, with 51 percent of students admitting to having cheated on an exam the previous year. By another estimate, cited in a New York Magazine article by Robert Kolker, almost 85 percent of students have cheated in some capacity by the time they graduate high school.

Yee and Kolker's articles both focused on cheating at another school famed for overachievers, New York’s Stuyvesant High School, where more than 60 students were implicated in a cheating scandal during city and state standardized testing in the spring of 2012.

Some of the pressure on young cheaters is certainly external, from parents, teachers and others who have been telling these kids for years that the route to success runs through Harvard Yard. Kolker's article bore the telling headline, "Cheating Upwards." One Stuyvesant student told Yee: “You could study for two hours and get an 80, or you could take a risk and get a 90.” But in many cases, much of the pressure is also internal: In the Crimson survey, 82 percent of respondents said their own expectations were their biggest source of pressure.

Perhaps students could use better role models. They read of Harvard administrators peeking at e-mail accounts.They hear of educators in Atlanta allegedly changing students’ answers or providing students with answers to improve district test scores.They learn of colleges fibbing their way to higher scores on the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Is it any wonder they deem short cuts necessary to success?

If anything, the Harvard survey suggests the university isn’t breeding cheaters, it’s merely welcoming them to campus. In fact, when the Crimson surveyed seniors last spring, the percentage of admitted cheaters was lower, with 7 percent admitting to having cheated on an exam; another 7 percent to cheating on a take-home test or paper; and 32 percent to cheating on a problem set or homework assignment during college.

The combination of these two data sets could mean any number of things: Perhaps high schools are now churning out more cheaters; perhaps students actually stop cheating once they make it to Harvard. Or perhaps they simply stop admitting to cheating on surveys, especially those taken in the wake of massive controversies. As Teresa Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, told the New York Post: “We have reason to believe that students who cheat might also lie about cheating.”

(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)