When Karen Clos became suspicious of a student's essay in her freshman writing class she put a phrase from the paper - joyously absurd - into an Internet search engine.
The student became the first at Barton County Community College in central Kansas to receive an XF grade after the Internet search revealed the assignment was plagiarized.
Dozens of schools across the country, including Kansas State University, Penn State University and the University of Maryland, are increasingly assigning the XF grade to students who failed a class because they cheated. The X remains on a student's transcript until the student takes an academic integrity course, but the F is permanent.
"The idea is that the 'X' is sort of a scarlet letter, so if you get one you want to get it off," said Phil Anderson, the honors system director at Kansas State.
Interest in the grade comes as online sites that sell assignments proliferate and research shows cheating is more common than once was thought.
"I think this started before the technology," said Don McCabe, professor of management at Rutgers University and a national expert on college cheating. "But there's no question there's more interest because of Internet plagiarism."
McCabe's research shows about one-third of surveyed students admitted cheating on tests and about half admitted cheating on written assignments. His research also showed many students don't consider it cheating to cobble a paper together by cutting and pasting passages from the Internet without proper attribution.
At many schools, including KSU, plagiarism has become the most common form of cheating, with most plagiarized assignments lifted from the Internet. Many school officials are becoming concerned that other technology, including cell phones with text-messaging capabilities, can be used to aid cheaters. In February, a dozen students at the University of Maryland were caught receiving exam answers on their cell phones.
"Certainly the research suggests there's been an ongoing increase in the level of cheating since the 1960s," McCabe said. "It's not these overwhelming increases. It's these steady increases. Hopefully, it's going to begin to turn around with all this attention."
That's also the hope of Clos and hundreds of other educators who view combating cheating as nothing short of a high-stakes battle with the future of higher education on the line.
"We are getting a little cynical, and I think that is a good thing," said Clos, also an administrator, who helped Barton County Community College adopt the XF grade. "I think that institutions of higher education know that if the public loses faith in the integrity of our degrees, we are finished as institutions. They have to mean something."
Since last fall, Clos said faculty at the school have assigned the XF grade about a half a dozen times to students caught cheating.
The University of Maryland is credited with pioneering the XF approach for addressing cheating in 1990 when it adopted what it calls a "modified honor code," which, unlike traditional honor codes, relies on the XF grade rather than expulsion as the punishment of choice.
McCabe, an advocate of the approach, says interest in the XF grade has grown and schools are adopting the grade as one piece of an overall effort to address cheating. Besides the XF grade, some teachers are assigning unusual term paper topics, collecting rough drafts or requiring that students answer questions from their classmates about their research.
Like the Maryland program, Kansas State's honor system has become a model for other schools interested in combatting cheating. A Web site explaining the university's honor system has received about 28,000 hits in the last four years, Anderson said.
Kansas State is now investigating its first large cheating scandal since adopting its honor code in 1999. The investigation started this fall when a graduate teaching assistant became worried that as many as two-thirds of the students in a large sociology lecture class were cheating on quizzes.
When the results of the investigation are released sometime after Thanksgiving, Anderson expects about one-fourth of the class, or 50 students, will be required to take an academic integrity course to remain in good standing with the school. He said the instructor hoped to avoid giving out the XF grade, though it remained an option.
"Our philosophy," Anderson said, "is students can make mistakes but students can learn from mistakes."
Kansas State attempts to educate students about the honor system through a club whose members speak to other student groups about cheating. Students also sit on the panel that considers cheating cases. Students ordered to take the course discuss ethics, watch taped news broadcasts about academic cheating scandals and write about the violations that landed them in the class.