“It’s a complex tug of war,” he said. “You have emerging adults who genuinely want to serve their country at the highest levels. It’s heartfelt and honorable. Some may say to themselves, ‘Am I going to allow calculus to be the thing that keeps me from being the patriot I am?’ or, ‘Am I going to let the fellow cadet fall behind?’ From that point of view, they don’t necessarily see cheating as an unalloyed bad thing.”
There is additional pressure to cheat, Dr. Rettinger said, because the workloads at service academies are higher than at most universities, and long-term career success is closely tied to a student’s performance in class.
“The cost of failure is much higher,” he said.
Frederick Malmstrom, a psychologist, graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1964, right before a massive scandal over stolen test answers, and spent the next 50 years studying cheating at the service academies. He said while cheating is a recurring problem at the academies, decades of surveys suggest most cadets get away with it, and only about 20 percent are caught.
“The academies are such tightknit groups that they are almost like the Hell’s Angels,” he said. “And they are unique because even after they graduate their paths cross throughout their careers, so they learn to look out for each other.”
Daniel Gade, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who taught ethics and leadership at West Point and now teaches at American University, said scandals get attention because cadets are held to a higher standard.
“The academies are trying to live up to the ideals of honor and integrity, but that is hard to do when they are drawing from a society where those things are not always valued,” said Mr. Gade, who ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in Virginia this year.
Dr. Rettinger said he was encouraged that West Point does not plan to expel the students caught cheating, adding that he hopes they can learn from the experience.