College Honor Codes Evolve to Meet the Times

Students at the University of Virginia last month approved significant changes to the school’s vaunted honor code. What does the move mean for such systems at other institutions?

Updated May 6, 2022

Edited by Brenna Swanston
College Honor Codes Evolve to Meet the Times
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Feature Image: UCG / Contributor / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

  • More than 60 colleges and U.S. military academies have honor systems.
  • Dropping or modifying college honor codes has become more common in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Critics say honor systems are often unfairly applied to marginalized students.

Students at the University of Virginia (UVA) have decided they can tolerate a bit of academic cheating, lying and stealing.

Last month, UVA students voted by a 4-to-1 margin to approve a referendum reducing the school’s penalty for an honor violation. Once permanent expulsion, the penalty is now a two-semester leave of absence.

UVA's enrollees pledge never to lie, cheat, or steal, and students are encouraged but not required to report honor violations.

But students were not reporting violations of that pledge during the pandemic, one supporter of the referendum told UVA's student newspaper The Cavalier Daily. Another supporter told the paper that the system’s expulsion penalties were too harsh and that the change might increase buy-in to the honor system.

The referendum was the most significant change to the university’s honor system since the school's founding, The Cavalier Daily reported, noting that between 1919 and 2017, the university's Honor Committee expelled 1,104 students.

Dropping or modifying honor codes is not unusual these days, especially in the wake of the pandemic. But it’s also nothing new; they’ve been evolving with the country’s changing cultural values since 1736 when Virginia’s College of William and Mary founded what is believed to be the country’s first honor code. Now, UVA’s referendum shows how such systems are dealing with online learning and huge shifts in learning behaviors.

College honor system scholar Holly Tatum said in an email to BestColleges that universities are getting up to speed.

“My sense is that colleges are slowly catching up with some of the bigger changes, particularly those related to technology and the websites where students can both upload and purchase papers,” said Tatum, who works as a professor of psychology at Randolph College.

Some colleges acknowledge these changes in school-wide policies, Tatum explained. In other cases, professors outline in their individual syllabi the uses of technology or collaborations that would be considered violations of honor systems.

Types of Honor Codes in Higher Education

Tatum’s research has examined the two types of honor codes in higher education: traditional and modified.

Traditional honor systems were established during a school's foundation. These were common at single-sex institutions and military academies, Tatum wrote in an article published in the Journal of College and Character in February.

Traditional honor systems entail four main features: a signed honor pledge by students when submitting work, a peer-reporting requirement, unproctored tests and exams, and an adjudication process that is run primarily or exclusively by students. These systems also regulate student behaviors outside the classroom.

Violating a traditional honor code even once may result in permanent expulsion.

Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, has what many consider to be the strictest traditional honor code. Under this code, students must attach a written pledge to all work that states: "On my honor, I have neither given nor received any unacknowledged aid on this [exam, test, paper, etc.]." Students found guilty of honor violations are permanently expelled from the school.

Modified honor systems are another type of honor system. These were introduced sometime after the founding of a university, according to Tatum. These systems differ from their traditional counterparts in that they may use honor pledges, but unproctored tests are rare, and peer-reporting requirements are uncommon.

Under modified honor systems, students do not bear sole responsibility for resolving cases. Instead, a combination of students, faculty, and administrators share this role, Tatum explained. Texas A & M University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Maryland all use modified honor systems.

Honor Codes Can Be Unfair to Marginalized Students

Critics of honor codes point out that they can perpetuate racism found elsewhere in our education systems, setting back efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion on college campuses.

This was found to be the case at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), where changes to the honor system are being implemented following a state-ordered investigation into allegations of institutional racism and sexism.

The changes came after it was found that VMI's honor court expelled Black cadets at a disproportionately high rate between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020, according to The Washington Post. Though Black cadets made up about 6% of the student body, they represented about 43% of those expelled for honor code violations.

Under VMI's revised honor system, accused cadets now face a more diverse jury, receive extra jurors, and have legal representation.

At UVA, a 2019 report examining 2017 data found racial disparities in the students reported to its horor committee. White students constituted 58% of all enrolled UVA students but comprised only 29.7% of reported students that year. Asian and Asian-American students were over-represented among reported students, making up only 12% of the UVA student population but comprising at least 27.1% of reported students. Black students were also over-represented that year, at 6% of the UVA student body but 8.7% of reported students.

The report also found historic racial disparities in sanctioning of Black students. From 1987 to 1989, Black students made up at least 41% of all students dismissed from UVA, but they were only 9% of the UVA student body in 1991, the earliest year for which demographic data was available. From 2010 to 2016, Black students made up at least 12% of sanctioned students, but they were only 6% of the university population in 2016.

Honor Codes Can Deter Cheating

Not every college campus is open to change. The U.S, Military Academy at West Point recently went the other direction with its honor code.

In April 2021, West Point ended its honor rehabilitation Willful Admission Process (WAP) and restored a system closer to its original 18th-century standard. WAP was created to encourage cadets to self-report their honor violations, aiming to reduce barriers to reporting. Cadets who enrolled in this process were not separated from the academy.

Three days after West Point changed its honor system, the academy expelled eight students. It also ordered more 50 students to repeat a year for their part in a cheating scandal. The cheating was said to have occurred in May 2020 during the pandemic, when 73 students allegedly violated West Point's honor code by cheating during a remote calculus exam. This was the biggest cheating scandal at West Point since 1976, which resulted in the Borman Report, recommending punishments short of removal from the academy.

Princeton University also saw honor code violations increase during the pandemic. In fact, cases tripled compared to a typical year, according to a 2021 article in The Daily Princetonian. The article stated that most cases were reported by faculty, not students.

“I teach philosophy to college students, and there was no way I was going to give them exams this semester, with our classes being held online. Why not? Simple — cheating,” Wake Forest University professor Christian Miller wrote in a November 2020 opinion piece for The New York Times. Miller is the director of the joint Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon University Honesty Project.

Miller's solution to prevent online cheating: honor codes.

“Honor pledges not only are surprisingly effective in curbing cheating; they also promote honesty," he wrote. "Students who abide by them refrain from cheating not because they can’t, but because they choose not to."

Tatum noted in her article that “a consistent research finding is that students do not have a clear and comprehensive definition of cheating and that students and faculty differ in their perception of what constitutes cheating.” A recent survey of students found that more than half of the respondents see Googling during homework as at least somewhat acceptable, and nearly half say it’s at least somewhat acceptable to use study websites.

Despite the confusion, Tatum wrote that research shows honor systems “function to improve academic integrity by providing the framework to build and promote a culture of academic integrity (attitudes and norms) and the structure and procedures to address misconduct.”

“Honor codes can serve as a deterrent to cheating when students better understand what behaviors to avoid,” Tatum wrote. ”There is, however, work to be done at both the institutional and classroom level to make honor codes work more effectively.”