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This question was inspired by this fascinating discussion about cheating.

If grades, degrees, test scores are important for getting a job/internship/assistantship, even more so than the actual knowledge that they measure, I can see how cheating on a test can be considered unethical. Is it ethically better to hire an expensive tutor to prepare, say, for the SAT or for the GMAT, or for some test at school, than to attempt to cheat on the exam?

Here is some context: New York Times: Tutors Hold Key to Higher Test Scores, for a High Fee .

Assume that the tutor has no secret/insider knowledge about the test. Assume that the tutor is essentially teaching you only some tricks for beating this particular test, no real knowledge. Assume also that many people in class do not have the money to hire a tutor of the same qualification.

Conversely, is it okay to cheat for those less financially fortunate, if they cannot afford a tutor?

As further context, Princeton Review explicitly states that their SAT prep program does only one thing: raises scores. Princeton Review argues that test prep is right and ethical, because (paraphrasing) SAT is a stupid, almost meaningless thing, and those without quality test preparation are put at a disadvantage.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by KennyPeanuts, gman, Peter Jansson, Austin Henley, Ben Crowell Apr 15 at 16:06

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

"Assume that the tutor is teaching you only some tricks for beating this particular test, no real knowledge." This is a pretty strong assumption which I think makes the question quite hypothetical. –  xLeitix Apr 15 at 8:39
Hiring a tutor to prepare for a test is considered ethical in my location(Taiwan), to the best of my knowledge. –  scaaahu Apr 15 at 8:42
@scaaahu Well, it is surely acceptable in the U.S. After a year or so in the tutoring field, I was astonished by the number of students from places like Columbia University requesting help with homework and even take-home exams. –  osa Apr 15 at 8:47
@scaahu but the question is not about simply hiring tutor, but hiring tutor that is insider and knows insider tricks, which is, effectively, bribing. –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Apr 15 at 8:48
A while ago, I asked a question meta.academia.stackexchange.com/q/775/546 on meta. It explains what's happening in Taiwan. –  scaaahu Apr 15 at 9:04

5 Answers 5

Measuring the ability to learn tricks (including financial ability) is actually of use to most employers etc., while measuring the ability to cheat is if anything a measure of what employers etc. want to avoid (since typically the risk/reward scheme for them is very different from individuals).

Thus, while having a tutor is not completely fair to those who cannot afford it, it is still a reasonable proxy for desirability. Cheating is (usually) not. So it's ethically better than cheating inasmuch as the right people for the positions will tend to be selected for them.

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You mean it is more effective for the society as a whole to consider hiring a tutor ethically better. This gave me a new insight into the concept of ethics! –  osa Apr 15 at 8:43
It's in no way better for the society, because it's creating a social classes system, like in the middle ages. –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Apr 15 at 8:48
@Łukasz웃Lツ - I didn't say it was ideal or even good for the society, just that it is not as bad as cheating. –  Rex Kerr Apr 15 at 8:52
Perhaps some employers want people who know how to cheat, in order to cheat whoever sets the rules for the employers (such as the tax system). –  gerrit Apr 15 at 14:10
@gerrit - This is why I was careful to say (usually) not instead of merely not. Still, clever workarounds (akin to tricks taught by tutors) are typically preferred that outright cheating, since the latter can have unfortunate consequences should you get caught. –  Rex Kerr Apr 16 at 2:25

Very theoretical, but let’s think this:

  • If you cheat, you are doing sth. very unethical, as you are not following the rules that every one must obey, thus, you're obtaining an unfair advantage. Rules are for everyone and you’re breaking them – that’s bad.

  • If you pay someone (who doesn’t have any real knowledge about the questions in the exam) to help you with the exam, you’re following the rules. So, you aren’t doing anything bad.

Some people may complain saying: “But it’s unfair for those poor little guys who have no money to afford a tutor. They’re in disadvantage; it’s not ethical; it’s unfair.” And I respond: “Yes, it’s unbalanced. People with money will have advantage. But people who don’t have to spend X hours in work will have more time to study, having an advantage too over the workers. And people who can study in silence will have advantage over those who live in noisy places, …”

So, we must put some rules to try to give the same starting position to everyone. But there will be always disadvantages. The better the rules, the less the disadvantages. So, the student can’t do anything unethical if he/she follows the rules.

The question should be: Is it fair/ethical that exams are made in a way that someone with knowledge of tricks not related with the subject can obtain a huge advantage enough to overtake those who don’t know the tricks? Why are those “tricks” not published by the “teachers” or the exam providers? The problem is in the way the exams are, not wether people can pay a tutor.

In any case, cheating is explainable, but never justifiable.

Edited to include my own comment: Are you doing something that breaks the rules? No. You are pursuing a finish line, with all your effort and possibilities. If you have the money and the will, pay for it. If you have the time and the will, study more than others. If you have skills, use them to learn better than others. If there are rules and you follow them, nobody can say you’re doing something incorrect. You’re just doing as best as possible – through effort, money, skills … If you stick to the rules, you’re ok.

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I follow your last sentence, thus an upvote. However, a question: Is hiring a tutor justifiable? –  scaaahu Apr 15 at 9:35
Are you doing something that break the rules? No. You are pursuing a finish line, with all your effort and possibilities. If you have the money and the will, pay for it. If you have the time and the will, study more than others. If you have skills, use them to learn better than others. If there are rules and you follow them, nobody can't say you're doing something incorrect. You're just doing as best as possible. Through effort, money, skills... if you stick to the rules, you're ok –  JavierV Apr 15 at 9:38
I suggest you to put your comment above into the answer. –  scaaahu Apr 15 at 9:53
@scaaahu Suggestion accepted and followed, thanks! –  JavierV Apr 15 at 9:55
+1; "unfair" != "unethical". As the platitude goes, "life isn't fair." –  Brian S Apr 15 at 14:24

Both are dubious. But cheating is a problem with your personal ethics, and you risk being caught. If the exams are based on some secret knowledge, which is not available to wider public, the whole system is corrupt. If you adapt, you support that system, but you don't risk getting 'caught', since you know something that is accepted by the system.

The problem is quite abstract since you won't have either-or situation in real life. If the system enforces bribing the examinators or buying secret knowledge, the system would enforce no-cheating policy on the exam very well (because it's in the financial interest of the examinator).

For me, it's like the pickpocketing vs. corruption dilemma. Both are bad. But cheating is easier to fix (more control on exams etc.). In case of paid tutoring the whole system needs fixing, which is hard to fix because the system will oppose and you need some external force to change that (like revolution etc.).

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Thing One: The exams are generally intended to measure how good you are at performing certain tasks (working out or knowing the correct answers to questions). On a given day, etc.

Thing Two: the exams are actually used to estimate how good you might be at other tasks (studying for a degree, doing a job, being "smart"). Of course SATs and the like are not great at estimating those things. For that matter intelligence doesn't easily admit being measured at all. But it's one piece of evidence and people seem to care about them.

So, get one consideration out of the way. Is it unethical to train for the test at all? Maybe, because that makes it a less good proxy for general ability. But you can train for the test with or without a tutor (perhaps more effectively with). Just practicing questions makes a significant difference. A good (but not off the charts) SAT score from someone who has never seen a SAT-style test before is impressive. A good (but not off the charts) SAT score from someone who has seen them before just means they're capable of studying. I think in this question we're not interested in whether receiving tuition is unethical. We'll assume it isn't and then we're interested in whether paying for it is unethical, right?

Cheating on the test subverts both Things. The first because what ends up getting measured is not anything you can work out for yourself (aside from avoiding getting caught), but something someone else can do for you and pass you the answers to fill in. The second because you won't always be able to cheat at your job and you won't be able to cheat at being "smart".

Paying for a tutor doesn't subvert the first thing at all. You really can work out the questions on the day. The reason you have that ability is in part because you have money to spend on the problem of learning it, but the test doesn't set out to measure how the ability was acquired, only that you have it. So from the point of view of standard testing, cheating is unethical and tutoring is not.

Paid tutoring may well subvert the second Thing, since you won't always be able to hire a tutor to teach you how to do any task you need to complete in life. SATs are quite predictable (intentionally so), challenging tasks in real life aren't. You can reasonably argue that if someone uses SATs (or GMAT, or IQ, whatever) as a proxy for some other activity then it's their problem to figure out what correlation there is (if any) between what ability you need to pass the test and what ability they really want.

Personally I hold to some socialist principles, so I think it's regrettable that opportunity and power in the country I live in is distributed primarily according to wealth. Which in turn is primarily inherited, at least when talking about people's early education, where any benefits like this coaching are typically paid for by parents. It's possible that this question is inspired by similar principles, in which case I sympathise, but the only way to apply those principles is to consider what it is and is not ethical to acquire through wealth. Different people will have different answers. Education? The ability to pass silly standard tests? A house to live in while you're educated? You can acquire free time through wealth, does that make it unethical after all to practice for SATs? If you think it's unethical to acquire advantage through wealth, sure it does.

In a perfect free market, people for whom a SATs tutor is a worthwhile investment would be able to borrow money to do so regardless of their economic background, and get the same benefit. In a perfect socialist state, access to education and jobs would not be based on wealth at all (indeed, 'wealth' could be meaningless or at least would not significantly vary across the population). Each system has its own idea of what equal opportunity means.

The actual world is neither of those things: some people can get an educational advantage by paying for a better education and others cannot, purely by the wealth of their parents. Society is not fair. Tutors are part of that privilege. As such I think they are part of the broader question of whether it is ethical to be rich, but there's nothing special about tuition in particular that makes it less ethical than spending money on anything that gives you an advantage of those who can't afford it.

It's probably less reputable to pay for coaching to a syllabus like the SATs that (for the purpose of this question) we assume to contain no real knowledge, than it is to pay for tutors to teach you something more educationally worthwhile. The more people train directly to a test, the less valuable the test becomes under Thing Two. But I don't think either is held to be actually unethical except by those who want the student's wealth taken out of education more generally.

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This is not so much a self-contained answer, as a longer comment in response to a number of the answers here.

Cheating seems to be categorized here into a single huge category, but it seems relevant to split it up:

  • Cheating by copying information from other students: Absolutely unethical and requires no useful skills from the student.
  • Cheating by using cheatsheets: Absolutely unethical (as the playing field isn't equal), however it still requires the student to comprehend the material and even more so requires the student to behave more similarly to real life where, unlike in exams, forced memorization isn't all that relevant.

Now, getting to your question, is it more ethical to hire a tutor? Definitely, as there are academic rules and expectations a student has to play by. Which one will teach a student more:

  1. Learning self made cheat sheets by hard
  2. Learning by hard
  3. Cheating by using self made cheat sheets
  4. Using a tutor learning only tricks as defined in OP
  5. Cheating by copying

Is what follows from the presented argument.

Lastly I would like to point out that in real life cheating by copying isn't called cheating but called collaboration (in the context of colleagues working for the same institution as is the case with students). In a lot of positions it's more important to know when to 'cheat' then having all the knowledge at hand by hard. This does not however in any way justify cheating, nor is the current system designed in a way that would allow correct measurements in spite of such cheating, but it is worth noting in the context of this question, especially as there is a slow paradigm shift from individual examinations to more heavily graded group work.

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Though cheating by copying can be called collaboration in real life in some cases, it can also be called industrial espionage or copyright/patent infringement in other cases. –  Wrzlprmft Apr 15 at 15:16
@Wrzlprmft: Added a note to clarify that it was within the context of colleagues working for the same institution as is the case with students (well, technically students are clients buying a service from the same institution, but that's not how students see it) –  David Mulder Apr 15 at 15:19

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