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The economics of cheating

This column deals with the conflicts we find ourselves facing in daily

As a college student, I worked 15 hours a week at a university research institute. The job was fun, but I worked mainly out of necessity. School was expensive, and already I was taking on heavy loans in order to supplement my mother's miraculous tuition payments. It didn't take my majoring in economics to know that extra income was a must.

One day a week I posted fliers throughout the campus, advertising the institute's events. I also placed notices in the mailboxes of dozens of professors. One afternoon, as I was stuffing the boxes in the economics department, I noticed a large stack of papers - photocopies, they seemed - resting in the slot of one of my instructors. The top sheet read "Answer Key: ECON 303 Problem Set." As fate would have it, ECON 303 was one of my courses at the time.

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My first instinct was to back away, lest any bystanders think I was stealing the solutions. But no one was there to question my motives. The mailboxes were in a small room across the hall from the department office. Very secluded. Completely safe.

Economics 303 was my toughest class that semester. Required for the major, it covered statistics and introductory econometrics. The problem sets took forever. Gazing at the stack, I saw how easily I could skim a copy off the top.... But I didn't. Instead I stayed up late that night, finishing the problem set. At class the next day I handed it in and received the very answer sheet I'd seen the day before. With a deep sigh, I reviewed my mistakes.

It became an odd, ritualized temptation. The stack beckoned every week. Its sheer size made painfully clear how no one would ever notice a single, missing set. The more demanding the assignments became, the tougher it became to walk away.

I began coming up with justifications for taking a copy. The detailed answer sheet would be a great learning tool - a study aid, really. I wouldn't stop doing the homework altogether, but refer to the answers if I got stuck. I'd save time, and it would make life easier for the poor, overworked graduate student who got stuck deciphering my errors. How selfless of me!

The semester grew more intense. Classes, work at the institute, singing rehearsals, my girlfriend, those insufferable problem sets - I began feeling overwhelmed by all these commitments. Something had to give! I finally decided to take an answer key. I remember strolling into the economics mailroom, half hoping the stack would be missing. But it was there as always, and as always there was no one around. All I had to do was grab the top copy and shove it into my book bag.

But I stood there, pondering the ramifications. Of course, there was the honor code I'd signed. But probably more disturbing to me was the possibility I could be caught. Maybe the copies were numbered. Perhaps a classmate would find out. Was it worth it? Was saving myself a few hours per week worth the risk - however remote - of being suspended or expelled? Calculating the costs and benefits, I decided I'd worked too hard to throw everything away on something like this. The upside was small, the downside enormous. I delivered the fliers and walked away.

Seven years later, my college diploma now rests atop a cluttered bookshelf in my living room. It's one of the first things I see when I walk in the door, and a source of great pride. I wonder: Would I regard it differently had I grabbed the answer sheet? Maybe I would. My achievement would be diminished, my pride qualified. Perhaps most important, the sacrifices my family made so I could attend a first-tier university would be betrayed.

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But I can't congratulate myself too much, as my decision stemmed as much from fear as from principle. Does the motivation undermine the act? Or does it still count as "doing the right thing" when you do it for the wrong reasons?

*Carlos Lozada is an economic analyst in Atlanta.